Karen Martini’s next project is a very large book. Five years in the making and due for release next year, the 912-page whopper will be called Cook and is, says Martini, “about modern Australian cooking through my filter, with recipes cherry-picked from the last 20 years plus big opinions from my whole career”.
Given the breadth of that career – chef, restaurateur, author, newspaper columnist, television personality – and the fact that she’s been in the business in one way or another since a work-experience gig at the storied Mietta’s when she was 16, you might wonder whether 912 pages are enough.
It might have been Mietta’s that made Martini realise that “this could be my thing” but she was always driven by a natural curiosity about taste and smell. The curiosity came early, watching her mother make lasagne to see why it tasted so good and remembering the distinct smells of different markets.
"I always knew I would cook, and I know I’ll continue to write recipes for a very long time because I’m forever hungry,” she says. “I’m one of those people who think about dinner while they’re having breakfast. Everything I do, everything I’ve done, even when there’s so many different balls in the air, it’s always about a love of food, of working with flavour.”
The single-minded love of food no doubt helped her focus as her career developed multiple offshoots. But those who have worked with Martini always talk about strength of character, her unflappable calm and her communication skills.
Gerald Diffey, owner of Gerald’s Bar, worked with Martini twice, once when she was an apprentice at Tansy Good’s acclaimed restaurant Tansy’s and again at The Kent Hotel in North Carlton when, as a 20 year old, she took on her first head chef gig.
“Everyone knows she’s a great cook with an amazing sense of flavour,” he says. “But what I remember was her character. She was always happy to see everyone and was indefatigable in the kitchen. What I remember most was that she had a joie de vivre that was catching. In those days, a lot of kitchens were run by men and she was never cowed by that. There is always a core of confidence to her and I think that confidence shows in her cooking. It’s part of the reason people are drawn to her food.”
Her work at The Kent attracted the attention of Donlevy Fitzpatrick and Maurice Terzini who asked her to run the kitchen at the Melbourne Wine Room. She did and met both success and her now-husband Michael Sapountsis. Then Terzini convinced her to move to Sydney and open Icebergs Dining Room & Bar. She had started also writing newspaper columns. It was also a time in her life where she thought: “I’m 35 so if I’m going to have children, I better do it now.”
“Having children is something only women chefs have to think about because they actually have to have the children,” says Martini. “I had to make the choice to step out of my career for a bit and things slowed down for me from there.”
Slowing down is relative when it comes to Martini. She and Sapountsis moved back to Melbourne, opened pizza restaurant Mr Wolf, had the kids. She also wrote the first of nine cookbooks, was food editor for Sunday Life and Epicure and did lengthy stints on TV for both Better Homes & Gardens and My Kitchen Rules.
Philippa Sibley worked with Martini all the way back in the day at Tansy’s, at the Melbourne Wine Room and now at Hero. "The way she approaches dishes is unique and interesting in the industry because the food she cooks is all her and not just repeating something she’s seen somewhere else," Sibley says. "She’s inspired by new things and always open to learning new stuff but it’s like it then evolves in its own eco-system. She’s still excited by learning and that is reflected by what she puts on the plate."
This year, with the opening of Hero, the restaurant attached to ACMI, the screen-culture museum at Federation Square, Martini stepped back into the restaurant game full-time, pioneering the radical idea of a gallery restaurant serving quality food. “I wanted it to change the way people looked at restaurants attached to galleries,” she says.
Given her track record, Martini will get that done too.
By Michael Harden; photography and video by Kate Shanasy
Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.
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