Chef Emma Warren lives in Mount Martha in part because it reminds her of Spain — the winding, sparkling coast with cliffs rising up from the sea and the smell of salt water resting on sun-kissed skin. After spending 10 years cheffing on the continent with the artistic legacies of Picasso, Dali and Gaudi surrounding her, Emma returned home with jamon, gazpacho and fresh seafood indelibly inked beneath her wanderlust skin.
This girl can cook with flavour and flair. She can write too. She’s just published her second book, Islas — Food of the Spanish Islands, through Smith Street Books and works with some of Australia’s biggest names in the food industry, including Philippa Sibley, Karen Martini and Matt Preston. But back to Mount Martha.
Emma explains: “My mum had a holiday house in Mount Martha. While I was travelling I met a Spanish man whom I married. We lived just out of Barcelona down the coast. It’s where I cut my teeth in cooking. Ever since I was a child I spent time in the herb garden and vegie patch and cooking what came out of the backyard. I’ve always had a passion for horticulture and studied at Burnley College. After I left school I got a job in logistics but soon realised I needed something more creative. I hit Spain and started cooking. My first proper job was in Mallorca with one of Jamie Oliver’s protégés, then I worked in a café in Barcelona under three sisters who taught me all they knew. When my marriage broke down, I returned to Australia and came straight to the Mornington Peninsula to chill. I’ve been living in Mount Martha since 2017.”
At 41, Emma doesn’t do things by halves. She learnt Spanish while learning to cook, set up a restaurant for chef, restauranteur, writer and television presenter Karen Martini in Ibiza in 2016, went back to William Angliss Institute to fine-tune her craft when she returned to Melbourne, and wrote her first book, The Catalan Kitchen, while pregnant. She continues: “Who doesn’t write a book when they’re pregnant then write another one when the baby is born? Ha, ha! I’ve done things a bit backwards — going to school after cooking in hotels and restaurants — but it’s the way it is. I met my current partner in Tasmania, became sick with cancer which they caught in time, then became pregnant and had my son Hector, who is now 15 months old, in the space of a few years. Over the last six years I’ve been involved in producing cook books with ‘Pip’ Sibley, Matt Preston, Karin Martini and Luke Hines amongst others. I also do recipe development for taste.com and other publications.”
Busy much? All this while finding the time to keep the kitchen alive with fresh flavours from faraway places. She concludes: “It’s very natural to me. I’ve been lucky to have such great mentors. The current trend is for chefs to go back into the garden but I’ve always been there. It’s where I come from.”
And where can you find her? She’ll be at Launceston’s Festivale in February with Karen and doing her own demo of dishes from Islas — Food of the Spanish Islands on Sunday, February 2. In the meantime pick up one of her books or perhaps bump into her down the street. Fabulosa!