As with many other great chefs, Martin Benn, of Sepia (which was in Sydney but will reopen in Melbourne later this year), attributes his interest in food to his family, in particular, his mother, and his upbringing in Hastings, on the south coast of England.
In the introduction to his cookbook Sepia (2014), he writes, “Even as a young boy, something was driving me to a life in food. My mother, Lin, is a great cook, taught by her mother, who was taught by hers – the traditional way. She is very passionate about food and, when I was growing up, we had a great meal on the table every night. Never afraid to experiment, she entertained friends regularly. I know this is where my cooking roots are from.
“On Sundays, while my father and older brother were in the garage tweaking cars and motor-bikes, I would be in the house preparing the Sunday roast with my mother. By the time I was 12, my mother would let me make the entire lunch by myself – roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roasted pheasant with all the trimmings, pavlova, strawberry shortcake – I was in my element [...] Our family meal was served at 5.30pm sharp, every night. The whole family sat together, sharing food, solving dilemmas and discussing what was to come the following day.”
When Benn was only 13, he took a job as a kitchen hand at a pub in Hastings. The son of the owners was working as a chef at a hotel in Maidenhead, and would occasionally visit the pub to cook special dinners. He took the young Benn under his wing and offered to let him help out at the Maidenhead restaurant during the school holidays.
After Benn graduated from culinary school, he worked at some of London’s top restaurants, including the Criterion, with Marco Pierre White. But Australia was calling, and he became a permanent resident in 1996. He soon found himself working for one of Australia’s most revered chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda.
“At the end of 2006, Vicky [Benn’s partner] and I were approached by an industry supplier with a new career opportunity. A high-end restaurateur in Hong Kong and China was looking for consultants to help set up new restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing [Benn doesn’t say in the book which restaurateur, but research indicates it was the Aqua Group.] [...] I was employed as the group executive chef of Western cuisine and Vicky as director of sales and marketing. I was in charge of four outlets, and at the same time tasked with writing a business strategy for the new restaurants in China [...] It became apparent that they wanted me to take on the position as head chef of their flagship – a role I had indicated I wasn’t interested in from the start. Meanwhile, we were informed that the restaurants in China were behind schedule and that we would have to stay in Hong Kong a lot longer than we had anticipated. In fact, there was no indication of when or if they’d be ready at all [...] We left the best restaurant in Australia for this?”
Hong Kong’s loss has been Australia’s gain. Benn opened Sepia in 2009.
The recipes in Sepia (2014) do take some effort, as you’d expect. They include butter-poached Port Lincoln squid with barley miso-cured eggyolk and wasabi flowers; whitebait with braised ox cheek dashi, palm heart, yuzu, hijiki and parsley; goat’s milk chevre with beetroot butter, rhubarb, beetroot rye and dried goat’s milk; and mango and vanilla with sesame brittle, yuzu sherbet and nasturtiums.