Bon Appetit called him an "international culinary darling". David Chang called him a "lunatic", probably the highest praise one chef can give another.
New Zealand born Ben Shewry has brought a thoughtful but playful approach to fine dining, winning plaudits with his endlessly creative food that draws inspiration from native Australian ingredients.
His Melbourne restaurant, Attica, is consistently rated among the world’s best and gourmands rave about the ingenious likes of Green Ant Pav, Marron in Kelp, Whipped Emu Egg and Deep-Fried Saltbush Leaves.
After Attica was again awarded the highest possible honour, three chefs hats, at the Good Food Guide 2019 Awards, Shewry talked to The CEO Magazine about the win, how his team keep the creative fires burning, the possibilities around working with Indigenous Australian foods and some of the people who inspire him.
Is it harder to get the three hats the first time, or to keep them?
Hmm, I don’t know. It’s very hard to get in there but I don’t really think about it too much as I have my own personal agenda with the restaurant. I don’t think every day about whether I’ll have three hats or not, we just run it as we see fit.
Ben Shewry at the 2019 Good Food Awards. Photo: Jim Lee
How exactly do you organise the creative process of coming up with new dishes at Attica?
We do a lot of research, that’s how it starts. We have a creative team of about eight chefs and I’m the leader of that team but we’re all responsible for researching. We meet twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, around the creative work of the restaurant.
We discuss new ingredients we have found or researched, cultural aspects of Australian society that we are thinking about and changes that need to take place on the menu. We then have a list of preparations that we’re working on that aren’t dishes yet and another list of dishes that we’re working on, so it is broken down into these sections.
We (order) the list of dishes that need to be changed into urgency. Seasonal changes always guide us, or (a dish) might have been on the menu too long, and we discuss where we’re going with those, who has an interest in doing what and then we divide up the jobs between us and then we go for it!
Congratulations to @benshewry and his team at @AtticaMelbourne, named 20th at the @TheWorlds50Best awards last night, and the best restaurant in Australasia. #Worlds50Best #SeeAustralia pic.twitter.com/d06upuQD1f
— Australia (@Australia) June 20, 2018
During the week, each of those eight people are working on different creative avenues and they bring the results of their experimentation to me or to our head chef.
At the end of the week, we come together again and we talk about what worked and what didn’t. Then we update our list and eliminate things that clearly aren’t going to be good.
We do a lot of forward planning as well, up to six months ahead. It’s probably the highest level of organisation we’ve had around creativity. In the past, it was more in a vacuum with just me and one or two others. But this is the best way of sharing it with the team.
Do you think we’re only just scratching the surface of using native Australian ingredients?
Oh yeah, we’re not even at 1% into that, we’re not even at the tip of the iceberg.
Above: one of the high concept dishes at Attica, ‘An Imperfect History of Ripponlea’ (Photo: Colin Page)
You were planning to visit Alawa Country, where you source your hand-picked teas from, did you go ahead with that?
I actually had to postpone that trip, I think we’re going to go up in February now. But Gulbarn is one of the hundreds of Indigenous ingredients that Attica uses or proposes to use.
We serve the teas every night to any of our guests who would like it and we’ve made salts with it and we’ve used it to cure with as well.
Who are some people from outside the world of food that inspire you?
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, I really like what his company stands for. He donates 1% of his company’s profits to charity. I believe that a good business contributes to the culture, it doesn’t just take.
My mother and father have always been a big influence artistically. More recently, the skateboarder Tony Hawk has inspired me. I met him through the restaurant about six or seven years ago. I really like the way that guy carries himself, he is a class act. He’s not mean. He’s had unbelievable success – he’s the greatest skateboarder of all time, yet he still has time to be nice to people. He’s been to hell and back but he is a really inspiring dude. If you check out his Instagram, you’ll see his thoughtfulness and that he’s funny as hell. A bit of humour goes a long way.
Bruce Pascoe is another person that really inspires me. He’s a Bunurong man and a friend, also an author of about 30 different books. He has helped educate me on Indigenous agriculture, food and history and he has challenged a lot of preconceived notions that Australians have been fed about Aboriginal people and particularly the pre-Colonial times. He’s a great Australian, a friend and someone I really look up to.
You’ve made a decision at Attica to avoid the formality of many fine dining restaurants; what was the thinking there?
It’s just a reflection of our society. We’re not a formal society with the airs and graces of more formal countries like France or England. We’re a pretty relaxed nation. I like that our dining room, service style and food reflects who we are broadly.
As a migrant coming to Australia, one of the things that was a revelation for me was how inclusive the society was despite all the rhetoric you see from journalists and politicians. I’ve always found Australia a very warm and friendly society. It’s generally more social than the country I came from (New Zealand) which is a friendly place as well.
That laidback, friendly ‘How ya going?’ mentality that most Australians have is something I want to mirror in the experience here.
Also, this is a restaurant that a lot of people know, they’ve watched it on Netflix. So they come with high expectations and nervousness. That anxiety about the experience is not helpful to us being able to deliver that great experience. We want to disarm people and offer a super-professional level of everything but make it warm and friendly, like this is our home.
Header image credit: Colin Page