Ibiza restaurants: Meet the chef – Karen Martini, Cala Bonita

Newly arrived on the island, a dedicated and passionate clan of South Africans and Australians are breathing life to a passion project called Cala Bonita, the redevelopment of local’s favourite S’Estanyol beach, past the town of Jésus. Within this circle of restaurateurs is Karen Martini; an award-winning Australian chef – born to an English Irish mother and French-speaking Tunisian father – with an established career spanning decades in the land down under.

After three successful restaurant openings in Sydney and Melbourne, a newspaper column, seven cookbooks (with another on the way), a television show, and mothering two children, the star chef is now bringing her pizazz to Ibiza. “Everything I do all comes down to the love of food, from writing to cooking to conversation,” she says. “I like to have fun and food is about having fun and being creative.”

Tell us a little about yourself?

I am Melbourne born, and lived my entire life in Australia. At the age of 16, I was a student at an all-girls private school when I left to find culinary work. I studied and worked my way through kitchens, and travelled overseas with the intention to work in France but instead I drank beautiful wines and ate delicious French cuisine and fell more in love with food culture! Eventually I made my way back to Australia. This will actually be my first time living and working abroad for an extended period of time.

What is your first memory of food?

I was nursing a watermelon in a supermarket while being pushed in a stroller by my mother at the Preston Market in Melbourne. Because you’re shorter while in a stroller, I was pushed up against the glass of an aquarium and I could see the googly eyes of all the fish looking at me! I’ve always helped in the kitchen, and when my mother used to make lasagne, I would peel the pasta sheets off without her looking and eat them – I would always get in trouble!

When did you know you would dedicate your life to food?

When I went into my first commercial work experience when I was around 15 years old. I was quite creative, but also still a full-time student at school and I wanted to experiment what it was like being and working in a kitchen. I went into a ‘3 Hat’ kitchen in Melbourne, which is like a Michelin star but the Australian version and it was just insane. It was awesome, as if the chef was conducting an orchestra, but with food and I haven’t looked back since.

What have been some of your career highlights?

I was running my first kitchen as a head chef by the age of 20, and worked very hard and launched the Melbourne Wine Room, went to Sydney and launched Icebergs on Bondi Beach – which was very successful. Then we opened Mr.Wolfe, a pizzeria in Melbourne that we currently still have and then I had two children! I was writing column for a major Australian newspaper, and then I started cooking in a segment on television, and I’ve been a judge on a well-known cooking show called ‘My Kitchen Rules.’ I’ve written seven cookbooks with my eighth on the shelf this November. It’s all for the love of food; as a media chef I am still very hands on and whether it’s the column, the television shows or talking to the supplier, it’s the food conversation. I never want to step away!

How would you describe your personal style in the kitchen?

Methodical and instructional but with passion. I want the chefs I work with to enjoy the food just as much as I do. I have a precision for technique. I don’t run a kitchen on fear, but on passion and inspiration. Although I have high expectations, I want to truly inspire these chefs, and to give them a fresh outlook on cooking and their career.

What is the culinary inspiration at Cala Bonita?

It’s modern Mediterranean inspiration that is a seafood based restaurant! We’re on the sea, we’re low key, serving up gorgeously simple produce to enjoy on the beach. We’re not manipulating the food too much, we are sticking with the basics and letting the outstanding products of the island speak for themselves. I could not do a menu without a ton of fresh herbs, spices, garlic, oil, lemon and salt! Because S’Estanyol is so charming and rustic, we’ve created a menu that would perfectly complement your experience here at the beach.

Do you have a personal favourite food?

I love a good home cooked roast chicken. Quite ironically, it’s usually the opposite of what I am cooking day to day in the restaurants. I also love exquisite Japanese food for its preciseness and simplicity and it’s such a joy to eat in this hot weather as well.

What do you love so far about working and living in Ibiza?

I love being able to see the sea, the weather and the seafood that’s caught daily. The gorgeous vibe that is relaxed and delicious. The stories of wild fennel and rosemary in the hills… I love nature and I love the ethos of eating simple produce on the beach. All of us have European ancestry, and we’ve all wanted to have roots and a connection to keep bringing us back.

What are you looking forward to with the launch of Cala Bonita?

That it’s happening! That we’ve made it! We put so much passion, conversation, thought and love putting this beautiful place together in our heads and seeing it come full circle is going to be the most rewarding. It’s been two years in the making and I am most looking forward to Cala Bonita becoming familiar on the island and we’re excited to have people along for the journey. It’s our little Australian voice welcoming the island in with open arms, for a drink and to enjoy some time with us.

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