It was the sauce that did it. A classic jus gras napped over a fleshy chicken ballotine at Fitzroy’s Hell of the North; slightly viscous, perfectly seasoned, lush. It compelled me to ask, “Why don’t we see sauces on menus so much? How do we bring back the sauce?”
The man behind this sauce was Simon Martensz, the Bathurst-born boy who has been cooking for 16 years and is one of the more calmly focused chefs you’ll meet. Cooking is his life and his commitment to refining his technique is formidable; you can taste it.
Martensz’s father is of Sri Lankan and Dutch descent, and his mother is Australian. While he did his apprenticeship in Bathurst – at a restaurant called Ziegler’s – it wasn’t long after he received his papers that he knew he wanted something more. “Bathurst is home, but in terms of cooking, everything was the same, I was itching for something more,” he says as we have a beer at Bad Frankie bar, Hell of the North’s neighbour and a place that Martensz likes to wind down at.
“I literally flipped a coin to decide if I was going to go to Sydney or Melbourne,” he says, “Melbourne won.”
In 2006 Martensz was told by a friend to head to Chapel Street and he found Orange. It was the venue’s heyday and was blisteringly busy. Martensz dropped in his resume, got a job almost immediately and stayed for four years, eventually running the breakfast services for the place.
If there’s one thing you notice about Martensz it’s that he immerses himself in each role he takes on. The antithesis of unpredictable chefs who flit from job-to-job, Martensz thrives on routine and mastering his environment until he feels it’s time to move on and learn something new. And that’s what he did at Orange.
Chef Harry Lilai, who had been at Cecconi’s (when it was at Crown), started consulting at Orange. He and Martensz developed a strong working relationship. “When Harry left he said, ‘I’m opening a place, I’ll give you a call,’ and he did. That was Town Hall,” Martensz says.
Working at Lilai’s Town Hall Hotel in Fitzroy turned his world and routine upside down. He went from early shifts to lunches and dinners, and learned to set up a kitchen from scratch. As is Martensz’s style, he settled in and stayed for a few years. “It was hard but it was great. I learned how to make pastas and it was Harry who helped me refine my skills, he took me from a cafe chef and showed me how to be a restaurant chef. I really learned the art of reduction, it was another level.”
The art of reduction is now much of the backbone of Martensz’s kitchen at Hell of the North. He made the move to the Greeves Street restaurant after bumping into its owner, Mark Grixti. They had previously worked together at Orange and when they met again Grixti had just taken on the restaurant’s lease. He told Martensz to, “Come back in five month’s time, I’ll have a restaurant by then”.
He eventually took a job as sous chef there. “I was looking for more refinement,” he says.
Martensz uses the word “refinement” often during our chat; what is refinement to him?
“It’s making something the best it can possibly be,” he says. He is in his element here in Fitzroy. “I love getting in and getting that stock on,” he says, “And to know that’s going to stay there all day and change so much. I taste my stocks every three hours and am fascinated by the flavours that come out of them, every time.”
His favourite dish on the menu at the moment is the lamb. “It’s lamb two ways, a crispy belly and roasted rump with garlic puree, fermented shiitake mushrooms, peas, pine nuts and lamb jus.” We have to talk about the jus. “That’s roasted lamb bones, onions, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf and I top it up with chicken stock for more body.”
Martensz is relishing his role at Hell of the North and unlike many chefs you meet, he has no plans to open his own place. “At the moment, I’m really happy where I am,” he says.