In March last year, news came of a hospitality coup. Renowned Melbourne restaurateur Chris Lucas had lured lauded Sydney chef-and-front-of-house duo Martin Benn and Vicki Wild away from their internationally recognised restaurant, Sepia, for a new Melbourne-based project.
Now the location for the project has been revealed. Lucas, Benn and Wild’s new concept will live at 80 Collins, a major new CBD complex by developer QICGRE, which Lord Mayor Sally Capp described as "unprecedented" at the precinct's launch on Thursday.
Benn’s flair for combining refined Japanese techniques with Australian ingredients to create highly conceptual, abstract dishes took the now-closed Sepia to number 84 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015. Lucas, Benn and Wild are aiming for another world-class standing on a grand scale.
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“It won’t be a temple of gastronomy. We want excitement, we want it to be buzzing,” Benn tells Broadsheet.
“You won’t be able to hear a pin drop,” Wild adds.
“We’re not going to repeat what we’ve done – we don’t look back,” says Benn. “But we’re going to take everything we know, then apply it in a completely different way.”
In a film shown at the 80 Collins launch, Benn said he felt "like Sepia was [his] apprenticeship" and that the Melbourne restaurant would be "a new category" in Australian dining.
Lucas has built Benn a dedicated test kitchen to develop a dining concept he describes as “quintessentially Australian” over the next 12 months.
“It’s my new life’s work. It’s a new stage for me. I want to change, to add a different legacy – different to what Sepia was,” Benn says.
“It’ll be avant-garde, but we’re not locking people in. We don’t want to force people into a set menu. We’re not getting people in for a ‘journey’. You can come in and out. We want it to be useful.”
“Accessible, not elitist or exclusionary,” adds Wild. “Martin’s not the sort of chef that spruiks a philosophy or dictates his cuisine. This restaurant will be about the customers.
“We want conviviality, we want theatre, the drama and the energy and the excitement. We’re so lucky to be working with Chris because he knows how to do that.
Due for completion in 2020, 80 Collins is being developed at the site of the heritage-listed Le Louvre building, which dates back to 1855. It’ll also include a boutique hotel, a retail precinct with international luxury labels, co-working spaces, a 43,000 square metre office tower, and additional food and beverage concepts yet to be announced. It’s estimated the building will employ 1,400 staff.
In terms of fit-out, the pair is keeping the brief close to their chests.
“It won’t be overdesigned,” says Wild. “Only once in a lifetime do you get the opportunity to work on something of this scale, so we’re not going to mess with it too much. The challenge is making such a vast space feel intimate.
“We just want people to be happier to be alive when they leave than when they walked in the door.”