Chef Martin Benn and restaurant manager Vicki Wild are shutting the doors on their three-hat restaurant Sepia, and moving to Melbourne. And no, Sydney, it wasn't anything we said.
"You get to a certain age and time in your life where you don't want to repeat the norm," says Wild. "I suppose we're different to a lot of other couples because we don't have children, so we can actually start again."
For Benn, he wants to leave a legacy, but doesn't want to be defined as a chef only by the work he did over the 10 years he ran Sepia. "I want to go and do different things now. Be the mentor, be the person that teaches everybody what I've learnt in being a chef, and also in business."
The couple also want a life outside of hospitality. "Being a chef in your own small restaurant, when you get to 40 you start asking yourself the question, 'What am I doing? How long can I literally stand on my feet cooking every day?' That's the hard bit," says Benn. "It starts to hurt. I made the decision that I needed a change. And I didn't have the finances to go and build another restaurant."
In March last year, veteran restaurateur Chris Lucas, owner of Chin Chin Melbourne and Sydney, and several other Melbourne restaurants, announced he was bringing Benn and Wild south, where he would establish them in a fine-dining restaurant, due to open in 2020. It was a coup for Lucas, Melbourne and, as soon as Sepia closes on December 15, an entirely new chapter for the couple.
Starting their own restaurant in 2009 wasn't easy, despite the fact they'd had such lengthy careers running restaurants both together and separately (the pair met while working at Tetsuya's). They went into Sepia with little grassroots business experience and the reality after 10 years of solid graft is they hadn't made enough money to set themselves up again in the sort of restaurant they would like to run independently.
I needed a change. And I didn't have the finances to go and build another restaurant to do all that.Martin Benn
They never set out to create a three-hat restaurant. Coming from the fine-dining trappings of Tetsuya's, Benn especially wanted to loosen the reins and create something a little more casual. And they wanted to make a profit. But Benn's exceptional cooking propelled them to the top of Australia's dining scene. Expenses and expectations are so high it is almost impossible to make money, they say. "You make a living. You can make a career," says Wild. "But we wouldn't change a thing because it's given us a platform. If it hadn't have turned out the way it had, then we wouldn't be in a position now where [a restaurateur like] Chris Lucas would approach us.
"I think that it is really good for our industry, both front of house and kitchen, to be able to show that there is a life for people approaching 50," says Wild. "A working life – because that's a scary thing, to burn out. Young people are not entering the industry because they fear you can't do this when you're 50. I keep looking for another 10 years – I have to – I've got to make my opportunity."
The pair are tight-lipped about the project they're taking on with Lucas. No announcement has been made about exactly where the new restaurant will be or what they are planning. And right now, they're more concerned about getting things in order before the big move.
Despite their excitement about a new restaurant in a new state, there's a lot about Sydney they're going to miss. Fratelli Paradiso, for starters, holds a special place in their hearts – it was where they were sprung dating when they were working at Tetsuya's. "Nobody knew we were dating," says Wild. "So, we went to Fratelli Paradiso, and one of the bloody waiters at Tets was there. We got caught and everyone found out."
There's Danielle Alvarez's restaurant Fred's, in Paddington. "It's got this great conviviality. It's original. Her cooking is just fabulous. And, it's what you want to eat," she says. And Lennox Hastie's Firedoor in Surry Hills. "He's got a really good style, and we always like sitting side by side at the counter – it's great. Everything of his is delicious, and it's unique to Sydney."
The omakase counter at Sokyo, where Sano-san, a long-time friend of Benn's makes arguably the best sushi and sashimi in the city. "He's booked solid. I think it's his deft touch. But also, too, he doesn't try to be too traditional," Benn says. "He's a bit like me, in a way. He thinks about temperature – the rice and the fish, [as well as] the texture and how it's all made. And, you must eat it within the time that he puts it down."
They'll miss the truffle pizza at Rosso Pomodoro in Balmain. Benn took his own Tasmanian truffle to the restaurant once – it may be the first time someone BYOed truffle to a pizza restaurant. And their old friend Nadine Ingram's bakery, Flour and Stone – Benn had worked with Ingram's husband Jonathan in several London venues including Le Gavroche and was best man at their wedding. ("Her talent is really rare. She's one of those people that really cares as well.")
But most of all, they'll miss their customers. "Restaurants are there to create memories, you know, and ideas, moments in time that people have together, whether with friends and family. We have so many people coming up to us and say, thank you for being part of our life the past 10 years," says Benn.
"That nearly makes me cry," says Wild. "So many people have said, 'We argue here, we cry here, we have fun here, we get drunk here. What are we going to do?'"
The Martin Benn and Vicki Wild exit interview
When you resign from a job, HR departments frequently ask for an exit interview. We requested a Good Food version from two of this city's brightest culinary sparks.
What circumstances prompted you to start looking at moving to another city?
Under what circumstances, if any, would you consider returning to Sydney?
MB: A large sum of money. Look, I love Sydney. If truth be told, I wouldn't have left Sydney at all. If Chris [Lucas] had said, "I'll do it in Sydney," I'd have said, "Good. I'll do it in Sydney." So when Chris says, "Let's do it in Sydney", that's when we'll be back.
Do you think Sydney adequately recognised your contributions? If not, how do you think recognition could be improved?
VW: You know, we've been very fortunate; we've been recognised. And this is not blowing smoke up your arse, but the Herald's contribution to our success has been immense. I think we've been very, very lucky. We wouldn't be where we are without the media. No way.
Were there any city policies you found difficult to understand? How can Sydney make them clearer?
VW: We're a nanny state. And that's disappointing.
MB: Sydney has lost its way at the moment. I don't want to sound negative, but the lock-out laws have caused a lot of small businesses to suffer very badly. And also, the whole [George Street] redevelopment, the city is really hurting. I think that we're lucky that we're on the periphery of the city. But a lot of restaurants are suffering. That's got nothing to do with why we're leaving the town at all. You get through it.
VW: I think that the lock-out laws have changed the soul of Sydney. It's made Sydneysiders think differently about their city. And I think that's a real shame, because we don't feel international. When you see those photographs on a Friday or a Saturday night with nobody in George Street, you just think, "What has happened?" It's a shame.
Do you feel your job description changed since you were hired, and if so in what ways?
MB and VW: Yes.
VW: I was initially hired as the maitre d'. And now I have become payroll, immigration agent, doctor, nurse, psychiatrist, brain surgeon.
MB: I was initially hired as the chef. Now I'm pretty much all those things as well, and chief putter away-er.
Did you feel you had the tools, resources, and working conditions to be successful in your role? If not, which areas could be improved and how?
MB: You know what? I made sure I had everything I needed to do what I had to do. I'm very lucky that I've actually managed to do that. The chefs – especially chefs who work in London – they say to me, ''I've never seen a kitchen as well-equipped as this."
Do you feel you had the necessary training to be successful in your role? If not, how could it have been better?
MB: We had the necessary training in doing what we do. I don't think we had the necessary training in business. But the best thing is I had 10 years to learn it. So at least I had a 10-year course in business, which is quite good.
VW: We've taught ourselves a lot. Like, don't spend what you don't have. We had to learn so much on the fly.
MB: I knew about food costing and stuff, but I think that my training even goes back to when I was at the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay. That was a defining moment for me as a chef. Going into a situation where you had the responsibilities of the food costs, and then also the business part of it.
VW: Talking about this now, I think how green and naive we really were to open the business that we did. I actually don't know what I was thinking.
What was the best part of your job here?
MB: Staff. Team. Family. Seeing people grow. Seeing people take responsibility for what they were doing. And the nurturing and mentoring of staff. That's a nice and cool thing.
VW: There's no way that we would be as successful as we have, without a few committed talented individuals. People like [sommelier] Rodney Setter. I mean, honestly, he has saved my arse on so many occasions. He's really loyal, intelligent guy. It's people like that, and you look back and just think, how were we so lucky to get him? When you have a three-hat restaurant, your staff are actually really proud to work in it, and that's a really good thing.
Do you have any suggestions for improving the city's morale?
VW: Sometimes I just wish there was a bit conviviality. I get disappointed when people go out for dinner and they don't speak to each other.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MB: Thank you Sydney for being so kind and generous to us. We'll be back.
VW: We've been really lucky. Sydneysiders really appreciate what we do, and I love the fact that people say, "Sepia's our restaurant". We have so many people that come to us every year. They save up, they come every year for their anniversary. I don't want that special thing about restaurants to disappear. I think people do save up money to go to restaurants, and it's a great compliment when they do.