WILD AT HEART
He survives on four hours sleep, forages in the wild for ingredients and even makes the cutlery himself. Dani Valent meets Ben Shewry, a very unusual superstar chef. First published October 2011.
I don’t know what I expected Ben Shewry to be doing when I walked into the Attica kitchen two hours before dinner service. Arranging foraged flowers with tweezers, perhaps. Creating “soil”. Dehydrating fruit at the very least. Instead, he is taking up a whole bench – half the small kitchen really – moulding clay to create 100 butter knives shaped like mini Maori clubs. Crafting cutlery by hand? Doesn’t Shewry make it hard enough for himself already?
Ten young chefs and kitchen hands labour around him. One stirs a mix of garlic, almond and milk solids. Others chop chives, pick parsley, sweep the floor and load the oven with sourdough loaves. A few are still scoffing the day’s staff meal, a fragrant Hokkien noodle dish with pork tail, plonked on the servery in a huge stainless-steel bowl. “If you want people to cook beautiful food for your guests, you can’t give them disgusting staff meals,” says Shewry, who spent four hours cooking the previous day’s worker chow. In the dining room, a theatre set awaiting action, Attica owner David Maccora, a doctor, paints a wall and a waiter flaps tablecloths. The phone doesn’t stop ringing. That’s the pay-off when you’re named best restaurant in The Age Good Food Guide (in both the 2009 and 2012 editions), and recently became one of only four three-hatted restaurants in Victoria (alongside Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond in Melbourne and the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld) and are Victoria’s only entry in the San Pellegrino list of the world’s top 100 restaurants (Attica is number 53, Noma in Copenhagen tops the list and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in the UK is fifth). As a result, Attica is booked out at least six weeks in advance.
Half an hour later, Shewry has swapped his chef’s jacket for a black zip-up and is walking through nearby bayside scrub for a daily bout of foraging. He lobs a large bucket over a wire fence then hurdles the fence too, boots sinking into sand. He disappears down a rabbit track, wending his way uphill through tea-tree and long grass until traffic from the beach road is barely audible. No one is about and if they were, they wouldn’t see the world-renowned chef with his bucket, scissors and sandy Blundstones.
Shewry crouches and gets to work, using blades and quick fingers to pick dune spinach, beach spinach, flowers and saltbush buds that will garnish dishes in the restaurant tonight. As always, when he’s focused, he seems to inhabit the moment, aware of these leaves, this air, the particular five o’clock stillness of the world. “Foraging seems very new but it’s old,” he says. “I don’t understand how we’ve got so far away from nature, how we’ve distanced ourselves from it.”
Where Shewry, 34, grew up in rural New Zealand, foraging, especially of seafood, was normal. “It was something I always did,” he says. “I understood it well.” He appreciates the unusual flavours of foraged vegetables. “Wild plants struggle for survival: they have strong tastes. And you can pick them so close to when you serve them – that gives the food spark.” Wild food also ties in nicely to the narratives that underpin many Attica dishes and certainly to Shewry’s obsession with being original, to creating food that’s inspired by his own milieu and history, rather than other chefs. “If your dishes tell stories about wild places then you need to bring them to life with wild foods, things that taste different to cultivated plants,” he says. Such dishes include “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown in” inspired by the hangi (Maori pit oven get-togethers) that were a regular event in Shewry’s North Island childhood, “Snow Crab”, which references snow-topped Mount Taranaki, and “Terroir”, a kind of dirt muesli with berries and beetroot that harks back to the sheep and cattle farm where the Shewrys toiled. It’s personal, whimsical food that employs technical cookery as an agent of story. “I think about how I can invoke a sense of emotion with my food beyond it just being something that’s tasty to eat,” he says.
Beach spinach plucked, Shewry drives to another favourite beachy foraging spot, gently railing against the ruled world and its ticketed parking bays by not buying a ticket. Stepping carefully on wet rocks, he selects some seaweed. “I own this beach,” he says, half joking. “I take care of it. I pick up the rubbish every day.” It’s the chef as accidental environmentalist.
“We think we respect nature but we don’t really know what that means,” he says. “We let destruction happen and in our busy lives we don’t take any responsibility for it. When I’m picking up rubbish, people often tell me that what I’m doing is fantastic. Well, why don’t they pick up some rubbish themselves, dammit?” Attica’s dinner service is in full swing, enjoyed by a varied crowd: apprentice chefs who have saved for months to be here, gleaming big-tippers who look like they’ve eaten a Michelin star or two, foodies who know that Shewry has been Victoria’s only representative at industry love-ins like Madrid Fusion and Rene Redzepi’s MAD Foodcamp, and the merely curious, for whom a night at Attica has shaped up as a key Melbourne experience. Shewry takes a turn about his dining room. “I don’t go to tables for any wanky reason,” he says. “I never ask anyone if they’ve had a good time, but it’s nice to acknowledge someone if they’ve come to eat with us. If they’ve had a good time, they’ll say so, and I’ll say thank you very much.” Two chefs plate desserts in a kitchen annex that speaks of the improvisational ingenuity that has seen a modest suburban bank slowly magicked into a world-class restaurant. Liquids are transferred from squeeze bottles, flavoured cream is spooned from tubs and the various components are arranged into artistic assemblies, sweetened with honeydew honey made from sap secreted by aphids before being processed by bees. Shewry’s eyes dart from plate to hand to bench to pass. He is genial but watchful and when something isn’t perfect, he says so. “I can’t take things not being right, I can’t take it on any level,” he says, suddenly intense. “I can’t take a paper towel that missed the bin, a mark on a chopping board, crumbs on the bench.” Shewry tells me about the Oversalted Butter Incident from the previous day, in which two chefs seasoned the butter, accidentally double-dosing it. Shewry discovered the error when he cut himself a piece of bread and spread it with butter just as the first guests arrived. “I lost it,” he says, almost awed by the anger lurking. “We were so close to serving this f—ing salty butter. I threw a bowl in the sink – it was just a stainless-steel bowl. I didn’t break anything. I’ve got too much respect for the dinnerware. But I was enraged that we’d come so close to failure.”
Part of his anger springs from disappointment that the chefs he’s nurtured have let themselves down (“I love those guys, I want them to be better chefs for themselves”) but it’s largely about the knife edge that a prominent restaurant walks and the sacrifices that success demands. “We’re cooking to defend ourselves,” he says. “There are all kinds of things going through my mind. There’s the fact that I haven’t seen my children for three or four days, that I’ve missed children’s birthdays, my wife’s birthday, events that have meaning. I feel that if I’m failing at the restaurant I’m failing my family because I’m not with my family. If I’m not with my family how dare I do a shit job at work?”
It’s well after midnight when Shewry toes the accelerator of his Subaru. He’s heading home, over the West Gate Bridge, under the speed limit, cruising. “I’m pretty much the only person that doesn’t think it’s crazy to live in Ocean Grove,” he says. The obvious attraction was affordability. “We were living in a two-bedroom unit in Ormond with two kids and the unit next to us sold for $550,000. We were like, ‘My god, we can’t even afford a unit in Ormond.’ The writing was on the wall, financially, but I’m not a city person anyway.” He’s happy with the move but he’s not exactly living the seachange dream.
Being the other side of Geelong means Shewry spends about four hours a day driving – two and a half hours morning commute, one and a half hours home on the swift midnight highway. “I block out the driving,” he says. “I get pretty sleepy but I listen to music or put the air-con on cold or have a can of Diet Coke. I used to ring people because if you’re talking you never fall asleep but my friends learnt not to answer my calls on those late-night drives because they’d never get off the phone.”
Finally home, Shewry creeps inside his modest brick bungalow, one foot rammed in the doorway to keep the cat inside. His wife, Natalia, and their children, Kobe, Ella and Ruby, are sleeping. Shewry met Natalia when he was 20. She was a hotel receptionist, he was a chef at the hotel. He made scones, she liked them. “We met and fell in love,” says Shewry. “I’d had relationships before and felt nothing. With Natalia, I was sure. I knew. I’ve always had the ability – and I’m grateful for it – to absolutely know what I like and what I don’t like. There’s not a lot of grey in me.”
He peeps at the kids, heads to bed. “I look at Twitter for 15 minutes at 2am when I’m winding down, maybe play tennis on my iPhone,” he says. “It feels luxurious, like I’m doing something for myself.” By 6.30am he’s up again, making school and kindergarten lunches for Kobe and Ella (cheese, carrot and hummus wraps – no beach spinach), shovelling Special K for himself, showering and heading out the door. “I used to have time to go for a surf but that is completely out of the question now,” he says. “Since (April last year when Attica was first named in the San Pellegrino awards), I don’t have time for myself at all. That’s quite an awful feeling. I don’t even have time to think some days. It’s the sheer volume of it: emails, planning menus, events, writing my book, the need to be at work cooking from the start to the end. I wonder how my life became as crazy as
So how did it come to this gratifying, gruelling whirl? Ben Shewry spent the first 12 years of his life on a hilly 1000-hectare farm, half of which was native bush. The family grew their fruit and vegetables and slaughtered their own meat; they drove to town every six weeks for other supplies. There was no television. Shewry and his two younger sisters ran free. “I remember when I was about seven, my sister Tess and I – she must have been five – decided we’d hike across the farm to this old logger’s hut. We walked into the bush for an hour and a half, boiled some pasta in a billy. We camped the night in that spooky old hut and walked home the next day.”
Shewry already knew he would be a chef. “My favourite thing to play with was a stainless-steel teapot with a Bakelite handle. I used to go to bed with a raw carrot and a thick slice of cheese and have a nibble in the dark, mixing the flavours in my mouth.” At 10, he was doing work experience at a rollicking restaurant in New Plymouth, the nearest city (“they put me in the dumb waiter and sent me to the bar when it got busy”), and by the time he was 14 and the family had moved to the city, he worked weekends in a cafe where they let him make the lasagne. He talked his way into culinary school at 16 and sought the best New Zealand training grounds, most notably with old-school standard bearer Mark Limacher, who is still a mentor. He worked for two years at Government House where he made 150 different versions of fried rice, striving for perfection. Shewry moved to Australia in 2002. He built on years of Thai food book learning and experimenting with a stint in London with Thai food maestro David Thompson (“it was like finishing school”) and he cooked at Melbourne’s Circa with Michael Lambie and Andrew McConnell.
In 2005, when Shewry got the job at Attica, he was junior sous chef at Circa earning $600 a week. “I had to support Natalia and my son and it was difficult,” he says. Indeed, he was on the verge of accepting a gig in a dodgy Richmond pub cooking parmas and steak. “My only motivation was to earn a living.” But when he got the head chef job at Attica, then a journeyman restaurant in a mess, Shewry got excited, ambitious, maybe a bit desperate. “I remember thinking ‘f— steak and chips, f— risotto,’ I don’t want to do those things,” he says. He developed a hybrid European and Thai menu with dishes that included whole poached chicken with mustard, coconut-marinated flathead and Thai sweets. Reviewers liked it but custom was patchy.
Shewry struggled to find a path. “I wanted very strongly to create my own style but I was frustrated that I didn’t have a strong culinary identity,” he says. “After about a year, I started to look back at traditional things from New Zealand, experiences and memories. I started to invent my own way of seeing things.” He dipped into a key memory: the time he nearly drowned when he was about 10. “I was harvesting mussels, facing the beach with my back to the sea and a rogue set came in and collared me unbeknown,” he says. “I got dragged across the reef, slashed pretty badly, held down, held down again.” He was saved by his father, “my great hero”. “Sea Tastes” was the result, a delicate assembly of clam custard, prawn jelly and sea urchin froth, a story and a dish that announced the arrival of a brave talent.
Slowly, recognition followed, rising like a tide when, for example, he was named Gourmet Traveller magazine’s Best New Talent for 2008, then ebbing a little, rising again with Good Food Guide attention, then subsiding. The first glimmerings of celebrity combined with the real-estate conundrum to prompt the move to Ocean Grove. “I come from a background that’s so quiet, I was starting to feel suppressed,” he says. Last year, the intermittent busy times became the new normal and, suddenly, it seemed like Shewry’s surfboard never saw the sea.
Meantime, more and more people come to Attica to eat his memories. Will they eat them all up? “Sometimes it’s a little scary,” he says. “Is it wise to share this much? Sometimes I worry that I don’t have anything left.” He’s back on the West Gate, plunging back into the smog-wreathed city, heading to his little Ripponlea restaurant, where a frantic, fulfilling day of cooking awaits. “To take my foot off the accelerator now just wouldn’t make sense,” he says. “I’m creative through emotions and it’s my nature to be open. If I can affect people in a positive way through something as simple as sharing a story, then it’s worth it.”
Marron, onion weed and mussel broth
1. The marron is poached then sprinkled with mountain pepper.
2. The seafood sits on crayfish floss, a concoction of claw meat marinated in light soy sauce, deep-fried, pounded to a coarse dust, then mixed with soaked mustard seeds.
3. It’s topped with garlic petals and a native sarsaparilla flower. A couple more sarsaparilla flowers sit around the marron, along with wild onion, dune spinach, beach spinach, wild pea shoots, wild cabbage and its flower, and sour clover buds.
4. A little mussel and pork broth is poured over the top, to give the seafood a gleam and depth of flavour.
5. The dune and beach spinach are prolific in nearby coastal scrub; everything else was picked during a 10-minute walk through suburban Ripponlea. “We walk past all these plants every day without giving them a
thought,” says Ben Shewry. To plate the dish, he lays all the foraged ingredients on paper towels on a tray, then uses tweezers to arrange them on the plate, eyes down, sometimes tentative, sometimes assured sometimes standing back like an artist at an easel, seeking just the right composition and colouring.