It’s September 2020 and Melbourne is barely two months into a 112-day lockdown. Martin Benn and Vicki Wild are holed up in Toorak, in a modern two-storey townhouse they’re renting in the city’s affluent south-east. The one-time darlings of Sydney’s restaurant scene, who together ran the three-hatted Sepia for a decade – Benn the consummate chef with a bent for Japanese, Wild the infectiously warm front-of-house host – are sitting out the city’s second lockdown, like the rest of Victoria, amid fears of another COVID-19 wave.
“Martin’s never cooked at home so much,” Wild enthuses, upbeat as ever. Among the “loads of new ideas” Benn’s been testing at home is an impressive 130-step toffee apple dessert, created for a MasterChef Australia semi-final challenge which the media-shy chef only hesitantly agreed to.
Benn himself is more matter-of-fact about the pros and cons of enforced hibernation, as is his way. “We haven’t had a restaurant for almost two years,” he says with a hint of frustration. Nor have they been able to travel, talk to other chefs or dine out. “Those evolutions don’t just come by sitting around at home, you know, we have to keep working on developing and evolving all the time.”
It’s nearly two years since the married couple and partners-in-everything handed back the keys to Sepia’s gilded Sussex Street, Sydney premises and, at Christmas 2018, moved south, across the Murray. In something of a bloodless coup, Chris Lucas, the high-flying Melbourne restaurateur behind the popular Chin Chin casual Asian eateries in Melbourne and Sydney, had poached the stellar duo to helm a restaurant he hoped would do nothing less than change the face of contemporary Australian dining.
Benn and Lucas made an unlikely pairing, the introverted, top-end chef judged one of the best in the country and the brash, canny businessman who made his reputation with more mid-market fare. The food world watched and waited with interest – many with one eyebrow cocked – to see what would come of it.
Then COVID hit, and the planned 2020 opening of this ambitious new venture by three of the brightest stars in the Australian food firmament stalled.
Now, finally, Society is due to get off the ground. But when, exactly? Victoria’s latest lockdown has meant its opening, slated for some time in July, may yet again be delayed.
Perched on the podium of 80 Collins, a spanking new precinct boasting a hotel, luxury boutiques, myriad eateries and a blue-tinted glass office skyscraper, Society is, in reality, a 330-seat multidimensional project, one that spans numerous levels and dining options across some 1600 square metres.
Owned wholly by The Lucas Group, of which Chris Lucas is founder and chief executive, with Benn and Wild its culinary and vision directors respectively, its centrepiece is the main Society dining room, which will showcase the best of Benn’s innovative, Japanese-inspired cooking for 100 guests at a time. A second more relaxed dining area, seating a similar number, will have more of a traditional Melbourne spin, serving classic Euro-centric dishes from Benn’s early career. Named the Lillian Terrace, this space pays tribute to the late Lillian Wightman, whose high-society boutique Le Louvre ran on Collins Street for more than 70 years.
Between these dining rooms is a 50-seat lounge with an 11-metre marble bar – much like you’d find in a hotel lobby – inviting people to drop in for a snack or drink, a more affordable option that will drive foot traffic through the door. And on the mezzanine floor above all this are three private dining rooms that can seat another 80 in total, one with its own show kitchen, as well as a bar and production area.
But wait, there’s more. On the floor below the main restaurants there’s an entirely separate collaboration between Lucas and Benn – Yakimono, a 200-seat Australian-Japanese grill, set over two levels, based on Benn’s Yakitori bar at Sepia, only on steroids. This is due to open later in the year.
It’s a massive amount of new dining options in a city that still bears the scars of last year’s lockdowns, the longest anywhere in the country, and is midway through its fourth lockdown right now. Snap state shuttering remains an inconsistent feature of Australian life, meaning restaurants can be forced to temporarily close at a moment’s notice – or in this case, probably delay their openings. Asked what this week’s lockdown means for the planned July opening of Society, Lucas, who has been a vocal critic of the Andrews government’s handling of the pandemic, could not hide his disappointment.
“With only a few weeks left before we were scheduled to open the doors to Society we have again been forced to shut down,” he says. “This current lockdown has devastated our staff and our dreams. Once again we face the task of having to pick up the pieces and gather the will to not only survive but open this most beautiful of restaurants.
“We will gather our thoughts and our energy as we have in the past 12 months and work to a new plan for opening this amazing complex. Once I get a chance to asses the impact of this latest lockdown and its imposed restrictions we will move to announce a new date. As I have said in the past, no pandemic will stand in the way of us opening Australia’s most beautiful and exciting restaurant. My thoughts go out to everyone in Victoria and I know that us Victorians will again rise to the challenges with our usual grace and a sense of humanity.”
When it does finally open, the challenges will remain large. Interstate tourism is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, there are no international visitors to speak of, and many city workers are still spending most if not all of their week in their home office. Even the number of Melburnians getting the tram into town for lunch remains depressed on where it was in 2019, when about a million people poured into the CBD each day.
In this climate, opening a multi-pronged dining complex rumoured to have cost upwards of $15 million is either brilliant – build it and they will come – or foolhardy. It’s either perfectly pitched for a country tipped to enjoy another roaring ’20s as it emerges from COVID-19, or an ambitious gamble that has the misfortune of launching amid the world’s worst health and economic crisis since World War II.
The 60-year-old Lucas admits the climate is a far cry from what he imagined when he first conceived of a restaurant with Benn and Wild, but insists his vision for Society remains steadfast – and suited to the times. “We need to create a modern evolution in dining,” he says simply. “I may be proven wrong, but I’m backing the horse that says [when we emerge from the pandemic] we’ll want a bunch of dining experiences we can call the shots on.”
It’s a mild day in February this year as I step off the tram at 80 Collins and catch the lift up a couple of floors to see how this audacious gamble is progressing. Telltale signs confirm Society is still some way off opening: a ladder and dangling wires here; plastic drop sheets with opened paint tubs there; and, in the main dining room, stacked chairs and a noticeable lack of tables. Even so, they aren’t enough to mask the elegance of the interiors. Jaw-dropping cathedral ceilings and giant tiered chandeliers, marble and travertine walls, hand-carved bar stools and plush furniture are all clues to the fabulous experiences in store – and a reminder of the eye-watering cost.
The one thing that’s pretty much complete is the kitchen, in which a small brigade of chefs is busy researching new recipes and tweaking old ones. It doesn’t take a second to spot among them the man on whose shoulders the success of this mighty endeavour sits. At 188 centimetres, Martin Benn stands out in a crowd. With dark-framed glasses and a greying beard, the 47-year-old’s vibe is more jazz than rock, appropriate given the former is a style of music he’s partial to.
British-born Benn arrived in Sydney from London in 1996, a 20-something looking for a change of scene after working in Michelin-starred restaurants such as the Oak Room and Marco Pierre White’s The Criterion. It took him a while to settle before landing a plum gig at Tetsuya’s in 1999, one of Sydney’s best-loved restaurants, where he found not only his affinity for Japanese food but also a Wagga Wagga girl named Vicki Wild, then employed as assistant to owner Tetsuya Wakuda.
A good deal shorter and blonder than her husband, Wild has a no-nonsense way about her, twinned with a cheery smile that suggests she’s the more social of the two. Love blossomed in tandem with Benn’s career, who after becoming head chef left Tetsuya’s in 2004, only to return again before trying his hand in Hong Kong. He and Wild finally opened their own place, Sepia, in Sydney in 2009, which went on to win every foodie award under the local sun.
And now, Melbourne. On this day, in their soon-to-be restaurant, the pair are dressed head to toe in black, apt given the city they now call home but also their trademark shade. Benn has shed 10 kilograms since emerging from lockdown and is finally where he’s longed to be, in the kitchen of a restaurant whose planned opening is probably the most anticipated in the country, the build-up only heightened by the COVID-induced delay.
“It’s good to be back,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re getting there slowly but surely. It’s a little daunting.” He confesses he hasn’t been sleeping well. “It was constantly going through my head, 30 dishes on this one menu for Society.” He wakes most nights like this, no surprise to those who know him well. “He’s always on,” one ex-colleague tells me. Former Sepia manager Ben Brown puts it this way: “Even when he’s doing other things he’s thinking about food.”
This is Benn’s dream kitchen and he’s had a big hand in designing it. Centre stage are three custom-made Bonnet Maestro cooking suites, imported from France, which are so massive they had to be craned into the building. There’s a Josper grill, smoking chamber, top-of-the-range combi ovens and just about every kitchen bell and whistle you can think of. It’s incredibly roomy – two huge passes (counters where dishes wait to be served to tables) and generously spaced food sections, which will accommodate more than 30 chefs once the restaurant fires up for service, working like a finely tuned motor to feed 200-plus diners across all the different venues.
For the moment, though, it’s very much heads down. Head chef Rhys Connell, who followed Benn from Sepia, is working on a duck main with apple cannoli, while head pastry chef Jo Ward is finessing a cheese dessert. Ex-Fat Duck chef Luke Headon is playing with ways to cook various rib-eyes, while Thomas Woods, who worked for renowned chef Jacques Reymond before establishing Prahran’s now defunct two-hatted Woodland House, has fish on the go for the Terrace he’ll be in charge of.
The biggest challenge for them all is to get in sync with Benn’s idiosyncratic thinking. Woods brings Benn a john dory dish he’s trying to evolve. To Benn, it’s worthy of any good Italian restaurant – but not his. It needs to be elevated. He doesn’t bark or bash the young chef with an olive tin, as happened to him early in his career. Rather, he delivers his critique, then asks: “You’re not upset, are you?” Woods is not. “Very rarely do we knock a dish out of the park straight away,” explains Connell. “We work together and refine it and refine it and refine it.”
This is Benn’s way. Quietly challenging, pushing, mentoring, while also letting a chef try his own ideas. “He’ll give you complete freedom to trial something,” recalls Dan Puskas, chef-owner of Sydney’s three-hatted Sixpenny, who worked with Benn at Tetsuya’s and Sepia. “Let you set your own trends.”
“Martin is the tortured artist, Vicki the enabler.”
The other thing Benn does religiously is record every single recipe, whether it makes it onto a menu or not. Wild will snap the dish on her iPhone and enter the details into an Excel spreadsheet, something she’s done thousands of times since Sepia first opened. She shows me an image of a tuna tartare dish with goat’s milk fromage blanc and dashi jelly, a reworking of a Sepia classic. The dashi is a dead giveaway to Benn’s Japanese leanings, the tuna his love for seafood. “My thing is to record everything you do,” Benn says. “If you don’t, you forget it next year.”
The moment provides an endearing snapshot of how the pair work – a loving relationship, like a secret ingredient, each knowing how to get the best from the other. It also offers insight into how Benn ticks – precise, disciplined, obsessive. A chef’s chef. “Martin is the tortured artist, Vicki the enabler,” is how The Sydney Morning Herald food writer Jill Dupleix sees it. “They have such fun together.”
The seed for Society was planted in late 2016. In Sydney on “Chin Chin business”, Chris Lucas decided to dine at Sepia, having heard good things. A shrewd and savvy operator who has earnt the moniker of Melbourne’s restaurant tsar, Lucas had jumped from IT to hospitality with his first restaurant in 1995, then spent 16 years moving from one restaurant to another.
After great success relaunching South Yarra’s Botanical in the early to mid-2000s, he moved to Flinders Lane, where he opened another wildly popular venue, Chin Chin, in 2011. He followed it with a string of hip eateries in inner Melbourne suburbs: Baby in 2012, Kong in 2014, Hawker Hall the year after and Kisumé, a multi-level Japanese eatery, in 2017, the same year he expanded into Sydney with a second Chin Chin.
Wowed by his experience at Sepia, he stayed back to chat with Benn and Wild, who not only ran the restaurant but co-owned it. The trio discovered they shared views about the state of hospitality and destination dining. Lucas is the kind of restaurateur who’s always on the make, should the right chef come along. He left Sepia that night thinking he may have found that chef in Benn.
“I was looking for a chef prepared to take on board my creative input and someone whom I’m prepared to take on theirs,” he says.
Around this time, Benn and Wild were deciding whether to renew their Sepia lease which, while still two years from being up, would mean another 10-year commitment. Their financial partner, George Costi (of fishmonger fame), was looking to retire and they were fielding overseas offers. Importantly, Benn felt he’d pushed his creativity at Sepia as far as he could. The restaurant had snaffled just about every culinary gong that mattered, including being thrice awarded restaurant of the year by dining-out bible the Good Food Guide – first in 2012, the year it cracked it for three hats, then again in 2014 and 2015. Easily bored, Benn had grown tired of the degustation style of dining and was up for a new challenge.
For his part, Lucas believed fine dining – a term he hates and avoids – had lost its way. It had become stuffy, predictable and boring, attracting only a small segment of the eating public. To him, it just didn’t add up. “I’m a restaurateur who deals every day with the democracy of dining,” he says. “Thousands and thousands of people come through my restaurants, so I get a direct sense of what people want.”
His successful slide upmarket with Kisumé proved he could offer a range of dining price points, from the chef’s table, a 12-seat $225 omakase menu on the top floor, to the cheaper sushi bar and izakaya-style dining on the lower levels. Suddenly he had a taste for what he could do with the top end of the market – and an appetite for more. With Benn and Wild, Lucas saw the chance to step it up and launch a new kind of “coming-of-age” restaurant for Melbourne: “sophisticated”, “global” and “destinational”. Crucially, as with all his venues, one that appealed to a broad cross-section of the dining public.
But will it? Walking about the restaurant, the word that springs to mind is swanky. From the bespoke Melbourne-designed chandeliers and Italian Fanuli Coppa bar stools that have been hand-carved from salvaged trees, to the $1000 Eichholtz Volante midnight-blue velvet dining chairs and solid timber dining tables, you’d be forgiven for thinking the place has been designed with corporate diners, special-occasion dinners and – when they return – tourists in mind. The restaurant sits at the “Paris end” of Collins Street, surrounded by luxury boutiques. Even its name plays into this sensibility, suggesting “high society” more than it does “democracy”.
Lucas doesn’t see it like that. To him, the restaurant is more a series of contemporary and approachable spaces, which feel as if they have always been a part of the city. He chose the name because of its historical connection to the old Society restaurant a block away in Bourke Street, which closed in 2016 after 84 years.
He believes a range of discrete dining spaces within the one venue – each offering distinctly different menus, experiences and prices – will have wide appeal. While loath to discuss prices, when pushed he says mains in Society will sit roughly between $40 and $50, with Lillian Terrace more in the $30 to $40 bracket. Not everyone’s idea of democratic. But – and this is the important bit, to him – there will be plenty of options either side of those price points in both spaces, with diners free to choose anything from any of the menus rather than forced to stick to the tired old entrée, main and dessert trope. The idea is you can tailor your dining experience, spending as little or as much as you want.
“Kids on the internet can look at restaurants all over the world, [they] may not have visited but their expectations, their tastes, have all changed, become more sophisticated, more global,” he says. “The future of dining has always been about creating a number of experiences.”
In the Society dining room, for example, there’ll be oyster and caviar services, a tuna and vegetable raw bar as well as a mid-course – probably lobster, snow crab or wagyu rib-eye – between entrées and mains and desserts. “We want a menu that, when you look at it, you want to order everything and already know you’re coming back before you’ve finished your meal,” adds Wild.
“The future of dining has always been about creating a number of experiences.”
This kind of construct-your-own meal – with in-built tasting and sharing options, especially appealing to larger groups – speaks to Lucas’ notion of democratic dining, but it can also draw out the dining experience, during which guests will order more and spend more, with front-of-house staff trained to sell, not just serve. “It’s then up to the kitchen to produce things they can sell,” says one industry observer. Cue Benn.
Time will tell, but for her part, food writer Jill Dupleix believes the trio may be on the right track. She thinks restaurants have an opportunity in COVID’s wake to “take the shit out of fine dining” and shape it as a freer, more individual way of eating: less chef ego, more what we want. “We also want the experience to have purpose,” she says. “We don’t want to go back to an era of the meaningless, unmemorable meal that was a bit of fun and $280 later, you go home.” She says Andrew McConnell’s latest Melbourne restaurant Gimlet is already doing this: “He’s synthesised a whole lot of things we love about dining out in Melbourne.”
Benn explains that Society will be a progression of his Japanese-influenced cuisine from Sepia, where he established a reputation for daring food that was exquisitely pleasing to the eye and intense on the palate. “It’s about concentrating on the purity of the ingredient.” He estimates about 80 per cent of Society’s dishes will have “evolved” from Sepia – but be simpler, “more accessible”, with more refined flavours, and more graphic.
Interestingly, the transition from Sepia’s tasting menu to Society’s à la carte dining has been one of Benn’s biggest headaches. He’s had to think hard how to transform small, delicate tasting courses into larger portions and shared dishes – visually, but also how we’ll eat them individually and as a group. He shows me images of dishes then – and possibly now – to illustrate. It’s hard to spot huge differences – both are so beautiful. But what I do see is what Lucas wants to see: everything, down to bar snacks, has that Martin Benn look.
What does stand out are his afters – what Benn is best known for, not only to his legions of loyal diners but MasterChef audiences. Sepia desserts such as The Pearl, Japanese Stones and Chocolate Forest Floor (which also featured on the hit cooking show) are three that won him huge accolades. He shows me an early working of his reimagined “urban” Forest, The Metropolis, the faceted facade of 80 Collins and new toffee apple, stepped up from his MasterChef spectacular, among other surprises. These will draw the crowds.
It was a classic dining destination – Benn and Wild’s favourite – that proved the inspiration for Society: New York’s Four Seasons, a ground-breaking restaurant embodying all the glitz and glamour of J. F. Kennedy’s early-1960s Camelot inside the iconic Seagram Building. It wasn’t the food they loved as much as the ambience and urbane mid-century architecture. In May 2018, on Benn’s 44th birthday, the trio dined there. “The thing that excited me was the energy and buzz,” says Lucas of the experience. “It was a destination restaurant that changed the face of the building.”
That’s what he wanted for Society from his designers Russell & George: mid-century for the 21st century. By then, Lucas had signed onto 80 Collins, its prime location and scale only stoking his hunger to create something unique. He worked on the concepts with Benn and Wild through 2018 and 2019, while the tower was being built. Benn spent much of this time in a test kitchen Lucas set up in the basement of his office building in nearby Oliver Lane, working with Connell and Ward to develop a 200-dish tasting program.
The planning and testing continued after COVID-19 hit, albeit with everyone on tenterhooks about if and when it would get off the ground. When Melbourne’s second lockdown hit and seemed likely to never end, a cloud formed not just over the future of this restaurant, but much of the hospitality industry.
It was at this point that Lucas came close to chucking it in. Surprisingly, he appears relatively calm when discussing it. It may be the casual get-up – T-shirt and slacks – that projects that impression. The hospitality kingpin has a reputation for many things, but calmness isn’t a quality usually singled out. “We went to the cliff face many times last year and looked over the edge,” he says.
Wild recalls the moment Lucas returned from a walk. “I asked, ‘Are you all right?’ He said, ‘I don’t know whether this is going to happen.’ I went to Martin and said, ‘It might not happen.’ ”
Until then, Lucas’ first priority had been to support his other restaurants and his 1000-odd workers. “We were all traumatised,” he says. With Society on the backburner, what were their contingencies? Should they think of something new? Benn had fed Lucas other concepts. Lucas felt he owed it to Benn and Wild to see the restaurant through, although he was prepared for them to pack up their knives, if they wanted to. “They had moved from Sydney and had been here a year with months away from opening,” he says. Thankfully, Lucas was able to renegotiate his debt with his bank. His landlords, Dexus, who bought the office tower from the original developers, QICGRE, for $1.5 billion in May 2019, threw him a lifeline, offering “financial assistance” until the restaurant opened.
In the end, Lucas felt he was too far down the track to turn back. The trio resolved to stick to their plans. “I remember sitting down with the financiers and they said, ‘Why not cut this out, change this or that’,” says Lucas. “I said, ‘It’s too late. The kitchen is built, the restaurant is pretty much built’.”
I’m sitting at the kitchen bench in the rather monochromatic apartment Benn and Wild have recently moved into: white walls, grey marble benchtops, the restaurateurs in black. It’s so neat and uncluttered it strikes me as more display home than temporary abode to one of the country’s best chefs. The couple’s “child”, a Burmilla (Burmese-chinchilla cross), is stalking the kitchen, still adjusting to the recent loss of the couple’s other “child”, a Burmese, whose ashes are interred in a potted Japanese maple on the terrace.
After more than two years in Melbourne, Wild indicates she and Benn now feel part of the fabric of the city. Naturally they’ve picked a footy team – the Melbourne Demons – and may still buy a home here, if and when they decide to sell their place in Sydney’s Gladesville. She loves the bushy Studley Park pocket of Kew in the inner north-east. Both love to walk and run, which they did twice daily during lockdown to help them through.
Wild confesses they miss Sydney. But Melbourne represented the fresh start they needed to tackle a new restaurant, free of the enormous expectations they’d face if they’d launched a new venture in Sydney. Nor in Melbourne would they need to worry about the financial pressures of establishing their own place. They’d had all of that at Sepia. As consultants, technically at some point, they can work on other non-competing projects in the future and walk, presumably, if they choose.
Not that they’re entertaining this right now. Why would you when you have one of the country’s most successful restaurant operators tending to the business side of things, letting you create the most delicious food possible in a state-of-the art kitchen?
Lucas calls it a “creative collaboration”. They’re like two brands, partnering up. Benn, who has his own eponymous web address, makes no bones that this is how he sees himself – as his own discrete brand.
At the same time, it’s fair to say the collaboration has some querying the fit of personalities. Benn comes across as shy and introspective. He suffers from a sense of what former The Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Simon Thomsen calls “imposter syndrome”. “Martin is one of those chefs who thinks, agonises and really tries to unpack what’s going on [in his food],” Thomsen says. “They have a vision and drive but are smart enough to doubt themselves.”
Lucas, on the other hand, doesn’t strike you as someone who harbours too many doubts. He has a steady confidence and coiled energy and can be quite animated when he makes a point, sitting forward, eyes fixed, punctuating his sentences with a subtly persuasive “right”.
Those who’ve dealt with Wild say there’s a tough side to her in business, different to the smiles and friendly banter. Wild happily confesses she’s “a ballsy control freak” and has had to adjust to not fully holding the reins here. But she’s influential with what Benn does. “Vicki is a powerhouse,” says Connell. “Her opinion is invaluable.”
I observe it myself in the kitchen. Benn and Connell are working through various combinations for their duck and apple cannoli dish. Nothing clicks. Without the right plate, Benn struggles to visualise the dish. Up pops Wild, suggesting a flat plate with lip. Presto, it comes together – enough for her to photograph it.
If the Lucas-Benn-Wild partnership is to work, as in all collaborations, there has to be give and take. Menus are a case in point. Lucas is known for being very hands-on with them (as he is with every aspect of his business). “I haven’t quite given them a blank canvas with the menu,” he says. “It’s a respectful collaboration. Just like we collaborated on the concepts, we have done that on the menu as well.”
Benn says he has no issue. It’s Lucas’ restaurant. Society isn’t Sepia. “At the end of the day, Chris has to get what he wants,” he says. “He knows the market.“’
He mentions a rib-eye. “Do I want to put a rib-eye on the menu? Probably not. That is probably driven more by Chris. How do I do that? He’ll say, ‘make it a Martin Benn rib’, so there has to be compromise.” It’s an awareness of a simple economic reality: the restaurant needs to appeal widely to put hundreds of bums on seats at each service.
At the same time, Benn stresses the food is “100 per cent” his. He mentions a tuna dish in which he used only anchovy as seasoning. Lucas had argued for more anchovy. “I said, ‘Fine, I’ll just take it off [the menu].’ ” His point: “If it doesn’t work for Chris, it doesn’t work for me.”
There have been other minor brushes along the way: for instance, the use of the second kitchen (Benn had initially wanted a test kitchen upstairs but Lucas saw it better used for private dining), as well as concept and design issues. In the end, a common purpose to create a top destination settles most arguments. “Chris really respects what Martin does and Martin really respects that Chris knows the market,” says Wild.
“I don’t know whether Melbourne will take to what I do, but I don’t feel I have anything to prove.”
There’s a degree of pragmatism to this relationship. Lucas plays a very long game. He has other ventures on the boil that Benn can help with. For Benn and Wild, it’s a meal-ticket that will help set them up financially and ultimately let them establish a better work-life balance. Wild even jokes 50 isn’t too old for her husband, “the frustrated architect”, to take up design. But there’s probably better potential in cultivating the Benn brand.
Benn also is clear, at this stage in his career, that he wants to give back to the industry by mentoring young chefs and passing on knowledge. “It’s my name on the door [of Society] and Chris’ name … but I want the guys coming through to make a name for themselves. But they have to earn it.”
I duck back into Society in April to check on its progress. Tables and chairs are in place now, as are diaphanous curtains to filter daylight and a walk-through wine cellar. The joint looks ready to welcome guests.
The challenge ahead is to rebuild Melbourne’s battered image and encourage greater numbers of city workers back to the office. With less than half the 75 per cent office occupancy Lucas had hoped for in March, he’s had to progressively push back the launch. “We need stability,” he says. “And the atmosphere of a full restaurant.”
Still, in the month before the current lockdown, he’d been heartened by the growing traffic moving through his other CBD venues. The delay has also given him time to recruit and train the imposing 300-strong full-time staff – chefs, sommeliers, waiters and bartenders – needed to run Society, and another 150 for Yakimono.
It’s also given Benn the luxury to fine-tune, filter and cost his menus – more than 80 dishes, which have been fully tasted by Lucas, Wild and the restaurant’s two general managers, Danilo Mancini and head sommelier Loic Avril. It’s allowed them to put the restaurant through its paces, too: sit at the table; experience the room; look at dishes served in each of the dining spaces under different lighting conditions throughout the day and night.
Nothing, though, can replace the real thing – cooking for guests, engaging with them on the floor, the cacophony and euphony of back and front of house, the sights and smells. Small-s society, if you like, on a small scale. That’s what Benn and Wild hunger for most after two and half years without a restaurant.
“I don’t know whether Melbourne will take to what I do,” says Benn, characteristically coy. “But I don’t feel I have anything to prove. I’m not chasing stars. I’m simply hoping to add a layer to what Melbourne already does really well.”
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