Karen Martini was born in Melbourne in 1971 to an English Irish mother and a French-speaking Tunisian Italian father. “Mum wasn’t a natural cook but she loved to eat,” says Karen, who grew up enjoying the food of her mother and marvelling at the meals of meme, her paternal grandmother. “I was always hungry, hanging around the kitchen, thinking about the next meal,” says Karen, whose childhood memories revolve around food. “I remember going to Preston Market with mum, nursing a watermelon in the stroller, eyeing off the fish staring back at me. I wasn’t allowed to stand up because the stroller would tip over from the weight of all the shopping bags on the handles.” At home, Karen hung about the kitchen from an early age, stuffing peppers with spiced mince, crumbing schnitzels, licking the cake bowl. Exotic food traditions from her father’s side, such as salted mullet drying on the window sill and meme’s lamb couscous, shared the stage with her mother’s Anglo eats, and treasures from the garden. “I remember sitting by our orange tree, picking fruit, scorching my lips on the sour juice. My jumper smelt like oranges forever.”
A career in food wasn’t an obvious choice but a work experience stint at the very fabulous, very formal Mietta’s was a turning point. “I rocked up in a girly top and patent leather shoes and I was told to go straight to the corner to peel garlic and shallots,” says Karen. The boss was newly arrived French chef Jacques Reymond. “I watched the master in full flight,” says Karen. “I was mesmerised, totally hooked on the adrenalin and the sight of the magnificent food going out into the restaurant.” After an entrancing two-week stint Karen begged restaurateur Mietta O’Donnell to keep her on as an apprentice. “She told me to go back to school,” laments Karen, who stuck to her guns, left school and landed an apprenticeship at the Austin Hospital. “Instead of fancy French food, I was reading patients’ charts to see if they wanted mash or peas.”
In 1989, in the third year of her apprenticeship, Karen hopped to lauded restaurant Tansy’s and stayed for three hard years, rising to the rank of sous chef. “The pressure was phenomenal. I was 17, working 60 hours a week and my mother was worried sick. The prep list was longer than our arms, our stomachs were in knots and we were bollocked every day.” But Karen and her young chef colleagues were desperate to learn. “We were dedicated, probably a little crazy, and we got a well-rounded training. I learnt discipline and contemporary French cooking and many of the skills and techniques I still use today.” So, even though Karen doesn’t cook exactly the same way – she’s not deboning sows’ ears much these days - she’s searing, seasoning, reducing, deglazing and structuring the addition of herbs, aromats and other flavours according to classic techniques. “I bedded down all that knowledge at Tansy’s.”
Karen left Tansy’s to go travelling in Italy and France. “I loved the way everything revolved around the next meal, how people would shop every day or two to cook something inspired by the season, and often using a recipe passed down the generations.” When she got back home in 1992, Karen and her Tansy’s pal Rita Macali ran the kitchen at Haskin’s, turning a local pub into a dining destination, then moved to the Kent Hotel to do the same. In 1996, Karen was lured to the Melbourne Wine Room, then owned by hospitality visionaries Donlevy Fitzpatrick and Maurice Terzini. The Wine Room became a big part of Karen’s life for the next 15 years. She continued to develop her modern Mediterranean style of cooking, winning awards and accruing firm fans. She also met her husband there: Michael Sapountsis was head barman at the Wine Room when the couple fell in love. The two eventually teamed up to buy the restaurant, driving it from strength to strength as a favoured location for relaxed, contemporary dining.
In 2001, Karen added Sydney’s Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, another Maurice Terzini project, to her busy roster. The restaurant was white-hot the minute it opened and Karen further entrenched her reputation as one of Australia’s most intuitive and talented chefs. Michael stayed in Melbourne to oversee the Wine Room, with Karen zipping back every few weeks. “It was a crazy time, incredibly busy, but it was fantastic to have that Sydney experience and to work with such beautiful produce, especially the seafood. Our fishmonger delivered stock three times a day.”
There was never any question that Karen would settle back in Melbourne. In 2004, she returned home to the Melbourne Wine Room and to bring another restaurant dream to fruition; Mr Wolf was a sensation as soon as it opened. “The idea was to open a little hole in the wall selling margherita pizza on a Monday, but somehow we ended up with a major pizza destination,” she says. Mr Wolf hasn’t had a quiet day since it opened and is still a favourite place for Karen to develop dishes and food ideas but, in 2011, Karen and Michael said a fond goodbye to a 15-year association with the Melbourne Wine Room to give themselves more time and energy for new projects.
For the last decade, Karen has balanced time in her restaurants with media commitments, charity dinners and writing projects. She’s been the food editor of Sunday Life magazine since 2002 and has written three acclaimed cookbooks. She’s been a resident chef on the TV series LifeStyle Cafe, and a judge on the network television show My Kitchen Rules. Karen has shared recipes and kitchen tips on the popular Better Homes and Gardens television show since 2006. “I’ve loved creating recipes for home cooks,” she says. “It hasn’t been too much of a stretch for me because I was never one of those chefs that steers clear of cooking at home. I’ve always had people over for dinner on my days off. I love it. It’s my relaxation.”
Karen and Michael’s first child, Stella, was born in 2006, and Amber followed in 2008. “My daughters rocked my world – as children do for any parent - but they also made me look at food in a whole different way,” she says. “Obviously, there’s less time to fiddle around or to dash to the shops for creme fraiche or cannellini beans, but I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of what I was cooking just because I was more pressed or couldn’t find the headspace. I understand why people turn to fast or prepared food to survive, but it doesn’t have to be like that. I’ve developed pantry strategies, preserving habits and recipes – many of them outlined on this site – to make cooking easy, enjoyable and achievable, even for people without much time.”
After more than 20 years of cooking professionally, Karen’s passion for food and cooking is stronger than ever, and her palate has broadened as she’s experimented with different flavours. “I used to say my cooking was modern Mediterranean but now I chase the flavours of exotic Asia and the Middle East as well.” Whatever the cuisine, the motivation and the reward are the same. “It’s a giving process, whether it’s at home or in a restaurant,” she says. “You’re nurturing people, you’re enabling conviviality and, for both cook and eater, I always aim to make mealtimes enjoyable and relaxed.”