Hometown: Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom
Occupation: Chef and Owner, Sepia
Years lived in Sydney: 19
Years worked as a chef: 25
Accolades: One to Watch Award, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants (2015)
Ranked #84, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants (2015)
Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year, The Australian Financial Review (2015)
Hottest Chef, The Australian (2015)
Restaurant of the Year, The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (2011, 2014-2015)
What is your earliest memory about food? And when did you realize you wanted to pursue a culinary career?
[My earliest memory is] the first time I saw a chef in my local public house preparing lobster thermidor for guests in the restaurant. I was working there part-time collecting glasses and general tidying when I saw the owner’s son, who’s a chef, cooking in the kitchen one night. It mesmerized me and it was from that point I knew I wanted to be a chef.
You moved to Sydney from London in 1996. When you arrived, did you think you would stay there for as long as you have? And how would you say living and working in Australia has changed your cooking style and approach to food over the past 19 years?
There was something in me that at a very early age had been wanting to move to Australia. It is very hard to describe, but I always knew I would end up here one way or another. When I decided to make the move from London to Sydney, the process was quite a lengthy one. In fact, it took me two years from the day I applied for my visa to the time I arrived in Sydney. It was a big move and it took me more than six months to acclimatize to the way of life here. I found that the food culture was thriving and that the approach to food was very social. It had a lightness and freshness that I had never seen before. It seemed that anything was possible.
Sepia draws inspiration from Japanese cuisine. What had been your exposure to Japanese food prior to working at Tetsuya’s?
I came to Australia in 1996 and knew nothing about the cuisine here, nor its persuasion to Asian food. My background was high-end, fine dining French fare, rich and heavy. I had no knowledge of Asian cuisine or for that matter, Japanese. I knew that if I wanted to get on, that I would have to learn more and to adapt my style of cooking quickly. I had been following the rise of a young Japanese chef, Tetsuya Wakuda over the few years I had been in Australia and knew that this was my chance to learn from the best.
You’ve been named 2015’s “One to Watch” by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. How did you respond to that?
Wow … the One to Watch Award from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. What a truly magnificent honor and a highlight of my career. I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would ever achieve the world stage. It was certainly a moment that will stay with me forever.
What do you love best about Sydney’s food scene?
Sydney has a very vibrant and diverse dining scene which is constantly evolving at every level. There are not many cities in the world where you can go to the top ranked restaurants and get a completely different experience at each one. You can eat really well in Sydney from the top end to the lower end, and the quality of the ingredients are unsurpassed.
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Sydney should try.
Quay: One of Australia’s and the world’s finest. A Peter Gilmore classic, mud crab congee
Billy Kwong: Home-style fried eggs with XO sauce and tamari. Kylie [Kwong]’s go-to for great comfort food.
Spice Temple: Lamb and cumin pancakes.
Bentley: all desserts from Chef Brent Savage are amazing.
The tasting menu at Sepia changes often, but what are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
I am a huge fan of Australian seafood and it is something that I personally love to cook and eat myself. A few of my all-time favorites are calamari out of South Australia, Western Australian scampi and King George whiting, again out of South Australia.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
Potts Point. It has so much variety in the ways of cuisines, as well as just [being] very accessible; there is something for everyone. You can eat really well here and reasonably priced. Also some good shopping for daytime diners to browse before or after lunch.
Describe your “perfect dining out day” in Sydney.
Breakfast is at Sokyo at The Star for a rice bowl, Japanese sausages and green tea. Then onto a light snack of fine apple tart and coffee at Flour and Stone. Lunch at Ester in Chippendale, then afternoon tea at the Park Hyatt in the lounge overlooking the beautiful harbour. Then dinner at Quay, and finally a night cap at Rockpool Bar & Grill.
What’s one dish in Sydney that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
Chef Pasi Petanen’s photato dish [at Cafe Paci] … brilliant and delicious.
Since it’s Sydney, we have to ask: what is your favorite place to grab a meat pie?
Are there any favorite watering holes you love frequenting?
Wine Library is a great small wine bar that has an interesting list, light snacks and great service.
What food is your guilty pleasure, and where do you go to get it?
Pizza at ROSSO Pomodoro, Balmain. It is authentic pizza made with seasonality in mind, from the finest ingredients with their 72-hour proofed Bologna recipe pizza dough. Worth the travel!
Since this is a site geared for travelers, are there any favorite restaurants or bars at Sydney Airport or in Sydney’s hotels that you particularly enjoy visiting?
Park Hyatt is a great place.
Are there any foods native to Sydney that visitors should try to seek out?
Australia is on the push to find its local and native produce right now and many of the restaurants and serving them. We love using lemon aspen and desert limes.
What would you say every visitor must see or do before leaving Sydney?
Dinner at the Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House. Great food and views of the city and Harbour Bridge.
Do a Harbour BridgeClimb?
Victor Churchill Butchers in Woollahra is a must-see for all food lovers.
Chef Benn’s Shortlist:
Sepia, 201 Sussex Street (CBD); Japanese-inspired modern Australian, lunch Friday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Quay, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Upper Level (The Rocks); modern Australianlunch Friday-Sunday, dinner daily.
Billy Kwong, Shop 1, 28 Macleay Street (Potts Point); Australian-Chinese, dinner only daily.
Spice Temple, 10 Bligh Street (CBD); modern Chinese, yum cha Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.
Bentley Restaurant + Bar, Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney, 27 O’Connell Street (CBD); modern Australian, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.
Sokyo, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Level G, The Darling (Pyrmont); Japanese, breakfast and dinner daily.
Flour and Stone, 53 Riley Street (Woolloomooloo); bakery, open Monday-Saturday.
Ester, 46-52 Meagher Street (Chippendale); modern Australian, lunch Friday and Sunday, dinner Monday-Saturday.
The Living Room, Park Hyatt Sydney, 7 Hickson Road (The Rocks); international, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner daily.
Rockpool Bar & Grill, 66 Hunter Street (CBD); modern Australian/steakhouse, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday.
Cafe Paci, 95 Riley Street (Darlinghurst); modern Australian, lunch Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
BlackStar Pastry, 277 Australia Street (Newtown); bakery, breakfast and lunch daily.
Second location: C1 85-113 Dunning Avenue (Rosebery); breakfast and lunch daily.
The Wine Library, 18 Oxford Street, Woollahra; wine bar, open daily.
ROSSO Pomodoro, 20-24 Buchanan Street, Balmain; Italian, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Bennelong, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point (CBD); modern Australian, lunch Friday-Sunday, dinner daily.
BridgeClimb, 3 Cumberland Street (The Rocks); open daily.
Victor Churchill, 132 Queen Street, Woollahra; butcher shop, open daily.
About the Chef: Sepia opened in 2009, but it continues to be as buzzy as any highly anticipated, hot, new restaurant during its first few weeks. Six years on, Chef Martin Benn hasn’t rested on his laurels; in fact, 2015 delivered a number of accolades his way. Sepia had been known as one of Australia’s best restaurants over the past few years, but it achieved worldwide attention when it was named this year’s “One to Watch” by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Hailing from East Sussex, Benn gained his fine dining chops in London before making the move to Australia. He had been living and working in Sydney for a couple of years before getting the chance to join Tetsuya’s, a fine dining Japanese restaurant. It was a major change for Benn, whose exposure to Japanese cuisine had been minimal, but by the age of 25, he had mastered the fundamentals and was named head chef. His time at Tetsuya’s proved to change his approach to food for good; one look at Sepia’s tasting menus, and it’s evident that Benn’s cooking style is now heavily influenced by Japanese tastes and techniques.