Chef profile: Ben Shewry from Attica restaurant – Dani Valent

One of my favourite jobs as a food writer is to interview chefs and find out what makes them tick. I wrote this story for the New Zealand Herald (2016) about top chef Ben Shewry. Read all about him, then watch his cooking videos here.

It was the tulips that caused the trouble. Last week they were pert and pretty, nodding in raised garden beds in Attica‘s backyard, waiting for diners to be led on a recalibrating, sense-enlivening pre-dessert stroll into the night. Customers would pluck a petal to form part of a DIY sweet sandwich with fermented rhubarb and lemon myrtle. Then the flowers started flopping, their season finishing early causing a cascade of changes to the Attica menu.

“The menu is like a Lego set. If one thing changes other things need to change,” says Attica’s chef and owner Shewry, standing in the closet-sized main kitchen. A “Legend” certificate bestowed by a local magazine the previous night lays on the pass next to Shewry’s laptop.

“I’m too young to be a legend, right?” says Shewry, who will turn 40 next March but doesn’t seem ripe for a crisis.

Pots are bubbling on gas burners. Ovens tick and hum. On the other side of the bench, in a walkway that’s also a prep area, four or five young chefs are stacking, scraping, mixing, stirring.

There’s a sense of purpose in their concentration and quiet words. It’s one o’clock and the restaurant doesn’t open for lunch but in five hours, the first of 55 guests will arrive for a 24-dish degustation, delivered in a surprisingly snappy three-hour procession. Those diners arrive with high expectations and, for the most part, they leave suffused with delight.

Shewry has scooped all the awards a chef can earn: numerous best chef and restaurant prizes, the maximum number of hats or stars bestowed by all the guides, a spot – Australasia’s highest-ranked representative – on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the cool kids’ guide to international dining. Shewry is carefully grateful for the feting but gongs are not what drives him.

“Awards are really nice and I appreciate the way they bring diners to our restaurant,” he says. “They are not what I cook for.” It’s about where he sets the bar. “My standards for myself are higher than anyone else’s could be. If you feel that way then you don’t feel any pressure from accolades.”

The immediate pressure is to deal with the menu changes. In most restaurants, dish development and ingredient ordering is a tick-a-box affair that may have tenuous connection to seasons or locality and little attempt at innovation. It’s not like that at Attica. Shewry and his team strive to find novel ingredients, especially indigenous ones, and to be the first to use them in a restaurant. Farmers post boxes of little-known leaves. A sous chef spends days sourcing emu eggs. Sources are kept close and, hopefully, supply lines exclusive. The dishes here become part of a story: of Australia and of the restaurant. There is also a serious focus on them tasting good, which might seem obvious, but can seem to be an afterthought in modern restaurants that serve arrestingly pretty and outstandingly clever food that makes no sense in the mouth.

Today they’re working on a lamb dish, fast-tracked because of the tulip crisis, and evocatively called “jumbuck”. It has to go on the menu in two days. Over the past week Shewry and his chefs have cooked iterations of it four or five times a day, inching closer to something wonderful enough to anchor an Attica meal. They plate the latest version for me to eat, a fervent assembly that takes three chefs about 10 minutes. What am I supposed to taste? Lamb I know, but there’s little else familiar in this gathering of macadamia miso, waxflower oil, desert oak and tiny native citrus.

When the dish is assembled it looks like a stone mound sprung with spiky tufts. There are minty, peppery and sour flavours dancing around a deeper richness and saltiness. There’s the meaty funk of the miso and the starchy, nutty texture of the desert oak seeds, which look like black-tipped corn kernels. The dish is not strange but it’s not normal. It gels, but I haven’t tasted anything quite like it before. Each mouthful is an adventure and a delicious education.

I don’t know how close to ready Shewry thinks the dish is. He’s talking portion size and acidity, wondering which knife to give diners and whether the meat is meaty enough. There’s an intensity to the discussion but a joy too, a sense of fun and play in the experimentation and striving, and the sharing of the path with his chefs and the diners who trust them each night.

Shewry is also working on a series of three small pies, one that engages with indigenous Australia, another referencing European settlement, and a third concoction comprising chicken jelly and matzo meal, which speaks to the Jewish population in the suburb of Ripponlea, where Attica’s single-storey ex-bank building stands, modest and handsome. This kind of storytelling dish developed out of a narrative cuisine Shewry worked through some years ago. I remember a culinary representation of the time he nearly drowned as a 10 or 11-year-old boy, while harvesting mussels at remote Whareorino, on a rock shelf 100m offshore.

“A rogue set came in and collared me, unbeknown,” he says. “I got dragged across the reef on my back and got slashed pretty badly. I got held down and I came up and another wave came and held me down and I was floundering on the reef. I was sure that was it and I was drowning. My father is my great hero. He swam out and he saved me and he brought me to shore.”

The dish that sprang from this recollection was called “Sea Tastes”, and featured clam custard, prawn jelly, sweet and salty nori powder and sea urchin froth. I heard the chef disavow it in a public conversation last year. “It was gross,” he said, or something similar, making the dish sound like something a half-drowned boy may have coughed up and spat out. It made me sad, because I had enjoyed it as food and found the connection to his childhood emotional and profound. I appreciated the laying-bare. But I surmise the chef’s endless striving comes partly from not liking what he’s done and pushing forward to the next. There are no repeat dishes at Attica: they are sweated over, served for a time, and then leave the menu forever.

If the connection to New Zealand is no longer explicit in his food, Shewry still credits his childhood in rural Taranaki for much of his character and approach. “It was an incredible gift to have an upbringing like I had in New Zealand,” he says. “Living with nature, being part of nature, set the foundation for everything I would do in the future. The bush was there. The wild was there. The animals were there. It was an everyday part of life.”

He lived with his father, Rob, mother, Kaye, and younger sisters Tess and Tamie on a thousand-hectare sheep and cattle farm, at least half of which was bush. “We would spend hours exploring, blackberrying, catching eels, whitebait,” says Shewry. There were no near neighbours, no television and the family was largely self-sufficient. His father worked the farm and painted, his mother tended a productive garden, and taught at the nearest primary school, where the student body of seven included her three children. The natural environment has left its imprint on Shewry but just as important was witnessing to how hard his parents worked.

Food was central: an activity, livelihood, fuel and topic of entertainment. “We would sit around the table and eat and share,” says Shewry. When he was 5, he decided to be a chef. “I can’t imagine why, because we were hours away from any restaurant,” he says. “It’s hard to explain how I even knew about chefs, but I was 100 per cent steadfast.” His favourite toy was a stainless steel teapot with a Bakelite handle, the star toy in a flotilla of pots and pans. He started cooking, developing two early signature dishes, bechamel sauce with peas that he piled on toast, and wok-fried carrots glazed with soy sauce and cornflour.

ben shewry by dani valent
Ben Shewry and his team strive to find novel ingredients, especially indigenous ones, and to be the first to use them in a restaurant. Photo: One Shot

The family moved to Inglewood so the children could attend high school. Shewry did
work experience in restaurants and, eventually, attended culinary school, undertook a formal chef’s apprenticeship and started jobbing around New Zealand, doing everything from making lasagne to creating margarine sculptures in hotels to cooking for the Queen at Government House.

He met his wife, Natalia, while both were working at a hotel in New Plymouth. He baked scones for a conference’s morning tea. She came down from reception to collect them. “She must have thought my scones were all right,” he says. “The rest is history.”

Shewry’s early career wasn’t exactly strategic but there was a fierce desire to keep improving and he made all his jobs, no matter how unglamorous, learning experiences. One gig involved turning out “New Zealand’s biggest nachos”, but when not piling corn chips sky-high, he worked on his knife skills. “I would get a whole bunch of capsicums and cut them into perfect squares.”

While at Government House he made use of a generous budget to work his way through favourite cookbooks and perfect certain dishes – he’s sure he made fried rice 150 times before settling on his favoured version. His education was often self-directed but Shewry is happy to say he soaked up every bit of wisdom and lore he could from Mark Limacher, the Wellington chef he still cites as a mentor.

In 2002, Shewry convinced Natalia that they should move to Australia so he could keep learning and, in 2005, he took on his first head chef job at Attica, a struggling suburban restaurant with no clear identity, owned by a doctor who was giving his side business one last chance. “My motivation at the time was to earn a living,” says Shewry. Kobe, the first of the couple’s three children, was then a baby and Shewry was having a hard time playing provider on his junior sous chef’s salary of A$600 a week. But once in charge of his own kitchen, it became about more than breadwinning.

Developing his own style and path as a cook became something akin to an obsession. Shewry surprised himself with his own intensity, working more than 100 hours a week, often serving a mere handful of diners.

“It was a desperate time,” he says.

“I was unsure and scared but bloody-minded and determined too, and willing to do anything to succeed. I put myself through the ringer.” Through hard graft, and an intense desire to create something personal and of high quality, there was a slow creep of positive reviews and increased diner numbers. For the chef, the recognition was less striking than the simple relief that there were people in the restaurant.

Even as the awards started to shower down, there came a dark period that Shewry looks back on as depression, a time when it was hard to find meaning in the punishing hours, the time away from his family, tricky staff at the restaurant, the cycling grind of it all. “I was definitely lost in this thing … I didn’t understand why I was so driven,” he says.

A boat trip with mussel farmer Lance Whiffen was the turnaround. Feeling Whiffen’s connection to nature, his dogged effort and his commitment to offering something outstanding, Shewry saw parallels for his own project at Attica. He’s since placed more emphasis on his restaurant’s culture, taking care to surround himself with positive people, working hard to create an atmosphere of support and human connection in the context of an exacting and ever-shifting reach for excellence that is tested and retested every day. “I really like hanging out with decent human beings,” he says. “It seems so obvious but it’s not always that obvious.” He also carved out more time for his family, coaching Kobe’s basketball team and, later, connecting with Helping Hoops, a charity that helps at-risk kids through basketball programmes.

For the past nine years, Shewry and his family have lived two hours’ drive west of Melbourne at Ocean Grove. In December, they will move back to the city, to be closer to the restaurant. Shewry will instantly regain three-and-a-half hours of daily commuting but is also excited about his children understanding more of what he does as chef-proprietor, in the same way that he saw his father cut manuka and slaughter lambs, and his mother tend her garden, creating a thing of usefulness and beauty. “I remember being in the garden, mostly eating things and probably being a general pest, but I’ve since realised that I learned a lot from her there,” he says.

As well as its backyard plots (where the tulips nodded sagely, then sadly) Attica has large, productive gardens at Ripponlea Estate, a National Trust property five minutes’ walk from the restaurant. “I was planting tomatoes there this morning,” says Shewry. “There was a huge apple blossom tree above where I was planting and I was wondering what everybody else was doing with their life at that moment.” His mother’s approach is with him. “She isn’t only a hard worker,” he says. “She’s also very focused on what she wants to do. She taught me to garden with a purpose.”

It can be hard to be so far from family. “I feel at home and very welcome in Melbourne but there are things that I miss about New Zealand,” he says. “I miss the freedom. Back home, I could jump on a motorbike, ride along the beach, light a fire, go swimming, get shellfish and cook them. That’s absolutely out of the question in Australia, where it’s more regulated. There is a wilder side of me that I am not able to satisfy.”

But Attica could not survive in his birthplace. “Attica requires a city of five million people to support it and even then it’s not like it’s been an overnight success.”

Two years ago, Shewry bought the restaurant outright from his erstwhile business partner and to him, it feels like a new era. He is studying creative longevity, taking his inspiration from artists like Yo La Tengo, an independent music group that has been active for 30 years. “Every Yo La Tengo album is better than the last and they stay humble and connected to their fans,” he says.

“Attica is going to be around for a very long time too, and that feels really good, really natural. I’m excited, motivated, looking at it super-long-term. In many ways I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Ben Shewry’s Melbourne:

• Kalimera Souvlaki Art, 41 Chester St, Oakleigh, ph 9939 3912. Their souvlaki is killer, nothing comes close.
• Tuck Shop Take Away, 273 Hawthorn Rd, Caulfield, ph 0431 406 580. I go there for hamburgers.
• I don’t get much chance to eat out but I like Rumi (116 Lygon St, Brunswick East, ph 9388 8255); Dainty Sichuan (176 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, ph 9078 1686); and Flower Drum (17 Market Lane, Melbourne, ph 9662 3655).

First published in the NZ Herald, October 15, 2016.

Subscribe to Dani Valent Cooking for immediate access to two delicious Thermomix recipes and video demonstrations from Ben Shewry. Ben’s Egg Fu Yong is an incredible savoury custard that uses the Thermomix for one crucial second, and Elaine’s Chocolate Cake is a Shewry family recipe handed down from Ben’s grandmother and shared here for the first time ever. If you celebrate your birthday at Attica restaurant, this is the cake they will make you. It’s so simple, made from basic pantry ingredients, but there’s something about the way it’s put together that makes it very special too.

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