Moving to Melbourne to start exciting new restaurant Society—only to have COVID-19 hit—has been a rollercoaster for former Sepia owners Martin Benn and Vicki Wild, but they still can’t wait to open those doors for the first time. By Rachel Smith
When Martin Benn and Vicki Wild closed their much-loved, three-hatted Sydney restaurant Sepia, the couple were ready for something new. A carrot was promptly dangled from restaurateur Chris Lucas (of Chin Chin and Kisumé fame), who asked the pair to collaborate on a new, fine-dining establishment—with one caveat: it had to be in Melbourne. But what happens when you’re in a new city, starting a new restaurant—and a global pandemic hits?
Firstly, congratulations. I know you’re close to opening Society and that it’s been real labour of love—not just because you moved cities to do it, but because of the pandemic putting it on hold for a year! Were you both on board with the move?
Vicki: Moving wasn’t really on the radar but after 10 years running Sepia, I was exhausted and I wanted to have a life where I didn’t think about the business 24 hours of the day. So I think I’d made up my mind, maybe before Martin did! We moved to Melbourne in late 2018.
Martin: I’ve lived in Sydney most of my adult life, and moving cities is a commitment. We were leaving our dream home and there were a lot of things pulling on my heart in the sense of wanting to stay. But I’m ambitious and the chance to try something new [did appeal].
Given COVID, is this the best or worst time to open a restaurant?
Vicki: I’m optimistic! And by the time we open, people will have been cooped up for so long, they’ll be looking for new and exciting things. We hope the new restaurant is embraced!
Martin: I think it’s really important that restaurants continue to open [and the industry rolls on]. In Melbourne especially, we’ve felt what it’s like to not have freedom to [go out and eat] and even if prices have gone up, there’s more of an understanding of why from diners, and I think there’s an appreciation of good food and wine even more than before.
How will things differ at Society, compared to running Sepia for a decade? Martin, you once said you wanted a work-life balance but Sepia took over your life a bit…
Martin: Sometimes I think I’m going to have that balance, be able to go home and switch off, but it’s never going to happen. I’m constantly working! But the difference is, we’re not running a small business anymore and wearing all the hats—chef, admin person, PR person, HR. Society is going to give me more freedom to do things that I wouldn’t normally do, and work with different types of food. It’ll have a Japanese sensibility; that’s in my DNA.
Vicki: Our roles are purely creative really; we won’t be spending our weekends doing the book work and the rostering or worrying about food costs. Martin has three head chefs! So we’re in a really enviable situation compared to our time running Sepia.
What can diners expect from Society?
Martin: Our focus is really on an upscale, à la carte dining experience where the guest can choose what they’d like to do. A good quality steak and salad at lunch, a couple of courses and a bottle of wine at dinner, or you can have a bigger experience with lots of different dishes and beautiful ingredients you might not always have the opportunity to try.
Vicki: The menu has about five tiers—there’s oysters and caviar, an entree section which includes a tuna section and a raw section, mid-courses where you can choose things like crystal crab or a snow crab, plus we’ll have a crustacean and meat section. We’ll have a couple of dishes that are large share dishes, like rock lobster done on the charcoal, with this amazing egg rice and dressings. Or you might want a prime rib with Japanese pickles and crème fresh wasabi butter…
You guys are making me hungry! You’re surrounded by so many luxurious ingredients, but do you ever just go home and make cheese on toast for dinner?
Vicki: Ha, ha yes! Look we’re pretty boring, we’re real homebodies and cook at home every night, don’t we?
Martin: Yeah. I love having a freezer and fridge full of easy, go-to food we can cook when we get home. And I can’t waste a thing, so I’ll order 10 chickens and break them all down and make curries and chicken soup…
Vicki: There are always chickens. So much chicken stock. It drives me nuts!
What are you both looking forward to when you open Society’s doors at last?
Vicki: The industry has taken such a pounding, and a lot of restaurants won’t survive which is really sad. We always say that wonderful things can come out of small restaurants in the suburbs, but equally wonderful things can come out of very large, aspirational restaurants, too. And, along with creating a special dining experience for Melbourne, we also hope we can create career pathways and longevity for chefs and other hospitality people.
Martin: And also for me, I’m looking forward to the creative process starting again properly. We’ve been largely housebound through 2020 and it’s difficult to be creative when you’re not amongst like-minded people and all the food and wine, or having everything to hand. So I can’t wait for that.