Sepia: The extraordinary cuisine of Martin Benn

ARTICLE / 13 MAY 2016 / BY DIMITRIS PANAGIOTIDIS

SEPIA: The extraordinary cuisine of Martin Benn
“Autumn leaves” caramelised apple with clotted cream, malted meringues and salted buckwheat toffee. Photo by Jennifer Soo.
SEPIA. 201 Sussex Street Sydney 2000 Australia / sepiarestaurant.com.au

Sepia Restaurant opened in May 2009 in the prestigious Darling Park precinct at 201 Sussex Street, Sydney, Australia. Sepia is the creative collaboration between two of Sydney’s highly regarded food identities – the renowned seafood wholesaler George Costi of De Costi Seafoods and award-winning Sydney chef Martin Benn. The contemporary Australian menu at Sepia is unique, utilising the best of local produce and drawing inspiration from Japan. Since opening, Sepia has gone on to become one of Australia’s most awarded restaurants and was recently named ‘One to Watch’ at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

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Vicki Wild and Martin Benn. Photo by Gary Heery.

Martin Benn says “Eating should never be confused with dining. Eating is simply consuming energy to fuel our bodies. When you ‘re dining you’re being taken on a journey into new sights and sounds, whisked away from your everyday life. It is a form of entertainment, of escapism – leave your troubles at the door and embrace the whim of an experience – creating that sense of theatre.”

Martin Benn shares some of the extraordinary dishes that make dining at Sydney restaurant Sepia a memorable, magical experience. Anchored around five kaiseki-style menus, this covetable, evocative book highlights the technical mastery and sheer beauty of his food, with its deep connections to Japanese cuisine. A series of narratives woven throughout the menus provide fascinating insight into Martin Benn’s journey as a chef, the philosophies that drive Sepia and the personalities of the staff and guests, who come together night after night to create the theatre of a restaurant. “I don’t know what it was, but 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 always 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.”

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Wagyu Mushroom Glass. Photo by Jennifer Soo.

“Five years on and Sepia has become more than we ever imagined. Over the years we’ve always kept the focus on our guests – the more you give your dinners the more they’ll want to return. The best marketing you can ever do is ensuring that by the time a guest leaves your restaurant they can’t wait to come back. That’s the point of a successful restaurant. Restaurants take a long time to build, to mature, to grow into their shell and deliver what they are truly capable of – to fulfil their promise. We have shaped Sepia into a beautiful thing that we are incredibly proud of and have set ourselves up with a restaurant that is well known in Australia and even beyond. It’s just surreal. We still have to pinch ourselves. But the dream never ends.”

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Frozen fennel with licorice, meyer lemon and yuzu butter, and sheep’s yoghurt sornet. Photo by Jennifer Soo.

“Anticipation. Excitement. Entertainment. Magic. These are the perceptions and expectations every great restaurateur must manage for any success. It is up to your team to deliver on the promise of such. If everyone has done their job, your guests will remember the night forever. It’s what we strive for every day at Sepia. But taking guests from reality into a magical world is no mean feat, and in truth you don’t always get it right.”

“You can’t succeed at anything in life until you learn what not to do. Understanding the elements of failure is as important as the retention of, and the way you use, knowledge. What makes up our personal story is created by much more than our hunger and will. What inspire us, what drive us – good and bad – helps define the footprint we leave behind, but there are always unplanned moments that alter our paths along the way. Of course, growing up int the small fishing village of Hastings on the southeast coast of England, I never imagined, not in my wildest dreams, that I would end up in Sydney, Australia with Vicki Wild and our very own restaurant. It’s mind-blowing.”