Meet Martin Benn, the chef creating a new style of fine dining in Melbourne

Charcoal grilled David Blackmore wagyu; sushi rice, shungiku tempura at Sepia.
Charcoal grilled David Blackmore wagyu; sushi rice, shungiku tempura at Sepia. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Chris Lucas, Vicki Wild and Martin Benn are gathered in a glass-walled meeting room at Lucas' head office in Melbourne's CBD. Lucas, ex-IT guy turned serial restaurateur, runs his stable of diners, including high-profile Chin Chin and Kisume, from here. There's good coffee and good-natured banter in the room. There's tension too, though not the negative kind. It's closer to the sort you get as a rollercoaster clicks its way towards that first exhilarating, terrifying drop. Or in the pause before you leap off the bridge, praying the bungee cord is securely attached.

What they're discussing is the highly ambitious restaurant they'll be opening together mid-2020.

None of them are strangers to restaurants. Tally up this trio's industry experience and you're nudging nine decades.

Lucas has been a well-known ball of energy in Melbourne since his success with South Yarra's Botanical in the early 2000s. Wild and Benn are Sydney industry veterans with impeccable pedigree.

They spent 10 years working together at Tetsuya's – Benn as head chef and Wild front of house – and then another 10 at their own joint Sepia where they snaffled a cabinet-load of accolades, Good Food Guide hats and trophies. It was at Sepia that Benn cemented his international "chef's chef" reputation.

So you might imagine that, with this kind of cred and experience, professionals like these would be unflappable. But what they're trying to create in the new development 80 Collins does have them a little flapped. Because this, if all their dreams come to fruition, won't be just another restaurant.

Martin Benn, Vicki Wild and Chris Lucas, the industry figures behind what is set to be a game-changer in the Australian ...
Martin Benn, Vicki Wild and Chris Lucas, the industry figures behind what is set to be a game-changer in the Australian restaurant scene. Photo: Eddie Jim

According to what they're saying in the meeting room today and on media releases following the unveiling of the site last Thursday, this restaurant will be like no other restaurant in Melbourne. Or in Australia. We're talking game-changer here. We're talking the level of legendary New York restaurants Per Se and the Grill. We're talking an evolution in Australian top-end dining similar to the one kick-started in America by New York's Four Seasons in the 1960s. They even want to attack Australia's cultural cringe.

No pressure, obviously.

"This project, if it all works out the way we hope it will, I think will reset the bar," says Lucas. "It will show Australia in a different light and our industry in a different light.

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"In Australia we do lots of things really well but I think we're too scared to do some other things because we feel we're not worthy or we'll get criticised or we can't afford to. People have said that what we're trying to do is a bit bullish but why else would we do it? It's not about hiding behind insecurities, it's about getting rid of our insecurities. This is about risk and about getting out there and seeing how far we can push the envelope in every regard."

Wild agrees. "I don't think in Australia we give ourselves enough credit for how good we actually are in our industry," she says. "We know from social media how many chefs, particularly from Europe and Scandinavia, are watching what our chefs do. I think we really underestimate that. I think Australia should be really proud of itself but we don't shout it from the hilltops."

So what is it exactly that Benn, Wild and Lucas will be shouting from the hills of 80 Collins? Is there a through-line from Sepia's Japanese-inflected mastery?

Now it means that we can reinvent ourselves.

Martin Benn

"The idea keeps coming up that we're going to be doing Sepia in Melbourne and that's definitely what we're not doing," says Benn. "Half of the decision-making process about moving to Melbourne was about the reality that if we opened another restaurant in Sydney it would never be able to be its own entity – it would always be 'not Sepia'.

"We'd always dreamed about moving to Melbourne and now it means that we can reinvent ourselves, with Chris giving us an amazing platform to do something that we couldn't have done on our own."

The platform is amazing. Lucas is bankrolling the project, signing the lease on a 2000-square-metre, multi-level space in a new skyscraper at the $800 million development of 80 Collins Street that sits directly behind the tiny building that was once the iconic Le Louvre fashion boutique. Signing the lease this early has meant that Lucas, Benn and Wild have been able to work closely with the building's developer, QICGRE, meaning the restaurant will be custom-built rather than retro-fitted.

An artist's impression of 80 Collins, the location of Benn's yet-to-be-named restaurant.
An artist's impression of 80 Collins, the location of Benn's yet-to-be-named restaurant.  Photo: Supplied

For starters, Benn gets his "dream kitchen". Then there will be the variety of different spaces, including some outdoor terraces with views over Collins and Exhibition streets, a "real grown-up bar" and a dining space with 12-metre high ceilings taking in views through 12-metre windows. Lucas has signed up architects Russell and George to design the interiors with added input from Studio Ongarato.

The yet-to-be named restaurant will be open from day through to night and each space will offer a different experience, though the quality in every space, at every time of the day will be at (a phrase they dislike) fine-dining level.

"It's finer dining," says Wild, though even that phrase makes Lucas frown. "We're taking the traditional view of fine dining and reimagining it in an Australian contemporary way, which means it's more accessible and flexible and fluid. We want it to be exciting, somewhere you can sit for a couple of hours in comfort, happier to be alive than when you first walked in."

Chef Martin Benn in Melbourne.
Chef Martin Benn in Melbourne. Photo: Vicki Wild

"We're breaking the traditional role of fine dining in this sphere," says Lucas. "Most restaurants at this level will follow a regimented format of doing just 50 seats and opening five nights a week. But we are in a big building and the landlord has bent over backwards for us so we have to ensure that there is traffic night and day in this large and complicated space. Martin has to create a number of journeys for people, not just one."

Discussion about a restaurant with these kinds of vaulting ambitions will always necessitate a truckload of blue-sky thinking, especially when it's more a year out from opening night and many specifics are yet to be nailed down. There's a lot of it in the room today: "quintessentially Australian", "avant-garde food", "next level", "multi-faceted", "throwing caution to the wind", "aspirational". At times the lack of detail comes across as more mood board than blueprint.

But if Lucas, Benn and Wild are faking their commitment to the project, they should all be up for acting awards.

It was at Sepia in Sydney's CBD that Benn cemented his international 'chef's chef' reputation.
It was at Sepia in Sydney's CBD that Benn cemented his international 'chef's chef' reputation.  Photo: Jennifer Soo

For starters there's the fact this is a stand-alone project, funded by Lucas rather than a five-star hotel or a casino, which is the international norm. It's a risk, but it also means there are less strings attached.

Then there's the test kitchen Lucas has had built in the basement of his office building on Oliver Lane, specifically to allow Benn more than 12 months of research and development.

There's also the fact this collaboration came from a conversation rather than a marketing strategy. It was a conversation that happened more than two years before the lease on Sepia was up, after Lucas had eaten dinner there and Benn and Wild sat down at his table at the end of the night.

Sepia's Japanese-inflected mastery earned a cabinet-load of accolades and trophies.
Sepia's Japanese-inflected mastery earned a cabinet-load of accolades and trophies. Photo: Christopher Pearce

"We started talking about the art of hospitality and restaurants and I thought to myself: I think we're talking the same language," says Lucas. "I'd always been an admirer of Martin's food and I'd heard that things were coming to an end and when I asked if they'd ever consider coming to Melbourne, they both said yes. That started the conversation. There was no plan, no project, it was a meeting of the minds."

"Martin and I had always harboured an ambition to do a large restaurant," says Wild. "And we'd been running a small business for a long time and had realised that we couldn't go on that way for another 10 or 15 years. So when Chris came along and said I love your food, I love what you do and I want to give you a better platform, it was music to our ears."

There was no site when Benn and Wild first came to Melbourne. There were ambitions to open a medium-sized restaurant that would reflect the many discussions they'd had about what hospitality was, where it was going, where it should go, what it could do. They looked at a number of different buildings and then the developers of 80 Collins approached them.

Martin Benn with his dish Japanese Garden Stones.
Martin Benn with his dish Japanese Garden Stones. Photo: Nic Walker

"They told me they wanted to create something special at one of the last sites on Collins Street where you could build something of this size, " says Lucas. "They viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a legacy, and offered it to us as a blank canvas. When we first looked at the scale of it, it scared the shit out of us but then it just seemed like too good an opportunity for us to pass on."

"There's definitely more ambition in the project than it first had," says Benn. "But it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something we'd always dreamed of doing. It also gave us time to immerse ourselves in the fabric and the culture of the city. We were never coming to Melbourne to show Melbourne how to do restaurants – they know that already. We wanted to come here to add another dimension.

"With this project I feel like I'm starting again and taking everything I've learned from working and reimagine it and apply it to a completely different zone. I have to push myself to the next level creatively. The Japanese influence is part of my DNA so there'll be aspects of that. But there are so many different areas to play in so I can use lots of different styles to create an experience that is beautiful over any number of courses."

"In a sense we feel like we're creating a new category," says Wild. "Melbourne will make it what it wants it to be but we are starting out with the idea of making something unique. It wasn't how we imagined it at the start but now I can't think of doing it any other way.

"Of course it's as scary as hell. But it's more exciting than it is scary."

House of food and wine

Martin Benn and Vicki Wild will be appearing at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival at the Theatre of Ideas presented by The New York Times at The House of Food and Wine on Monday, March 11.

4pm Chasing the Muse: Staying Creative in the Kitchen
Host: Jill Dupleix with Martin Benn, Vicki Wild and Ryan Clift

Social media. Food festivals. Environmental and social activism. Merchandise. Television. Books. It was hard to find time for cooks to come up with fresh ideas back when all they had to do was cook. How do the innovators of today maintain their bandwidth? What does it mean to be creative in the kitchen?

We can also announce that Sarah Wilson is coming to the The House of Food and Wine on Saturday, March 9.

1.30pm From Quitting Sugar to Fighting Food Waste: Sarah Wilson's story
Host: Ardyn Bernoth with Sarah Wilson

I Quit Sugar caused a mini-revolution when it was launched in 2011. Fast-forward to 2019 and Sarah Wilson has shifted her fired-up focus to tackling the problem of food waste. Hear Wilson's philosophy on food and its healing powers – not just for our bodies but for the world – in a stimulating conversation that will have you rethink your shopping and eating habits.

Southbank's Malthouse Theatre will transform into The House of Food and Wine. Over three days from 9-11 March, the theatre and courtyard will be a hive of activity with top international and local chefs demonstrating their dishes in the Masterclass theatre and debating hot topics at Theatre of Ideas.

Day passes are $65 and include entry to the event, Masterclass and Theatre of Ideas. More info: melbournefoodandwine.com.au