There won’t be any kimchi. Not at first, anyway. Ben Sears’ CV is varied. He has cooked at Cutler & Co, at storied fine-diner Claude’s, won plaudits for his hummus in his time at Ezra, and latterly ran a pop-up at Bar Bellamy inspired by the life and times of French wrestler Andre the Giant. But it was cooking Korean food with his partner Eun Hee An at Moon Park and Paper Bird restaurants in Sydney that made his name. Now he’s back home in Melbourne, and with Hee An cooking Korean-inspired café brilliance at Moon Mart, he’s taking things in a different direction again as he steps into the chef role at Public Wine Shop.
The bar, which was opened by importer Campbell Burton in 2020, gained a reputation for being a great place to eat when Ali Currey-Voumard started cooking a concise but thoroughly delicious menu right in the thick of the dining room in 2021, a tradition held up more than admirably by fellow chef Simon Ball Smith.
It’s with respect for the fanbase that Currey-Voumard and Ball Smith established with their oeufs mayonnaise, baked leeks and generally Franco-Italian leaning menus that Sears hasn’t come out swinging with the likes of shrimp-brined fried chicken, beef jerky brushed with sesame oil, or yukhoe dressed with scorched onions and preserved shiso. Sears, who is on tools as of this week, says the changes he’s instituting will be gradual rather than a flip of the script.
“There probably won’t be anything overtly Korean or Asian on the menu. We’re not going to start serving gukbap (as much as I would like to), but there’ll be an undercurrent in the seasonings that we use and the way we treat produce.”
There’s also the set-up to be considered – Public Wine Shop is, as the name might suggest, primarily a place to buy and drink the natural-leaning wines Burton is so passionate about, and to call the kitchen kit minimal is generous at best. “It’s a pretty unique kitchen layout, so I would like to get a little bit more comfortable with how it works before I start changing too much.”
“I really love Public so I’d like to keep the core kind of DNA intact. The stuff that Ali and Simon were doing was delicious and very apt, I thought, for the sort of venue that it is,” he says. “And I’ve always had a soft spot for that kind of Simon Hopkinson, Richard Olney produce-driven bourgeois French thing.”
Burton’s intense interest in well-farmed produce is key in any case, says Sears – lots of care in the sourcing, but a light and light-hearted touch in the serving. “It’s really inspiring. Heading into summer I’m thinking of things like eggplants baked in crème fraîche, and sweet-and-sour pork ribs, and I’d really love to figure out the platonic ideal of a roast chicken.”