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Ben Shewry on Memories, Foraging, and Doing it Yourself

Photo: Gabe Ulla /

If there was a darling at last weekend's inaugural MAD FoodCamp, it was Ben Shewry, chef of the Melbourne restaurant Attica. He presented a short film. In it, he guides his son along the seashore, collecting plants for a dish of abalone, while his voiceover describes how his father had done the same with him when he was a child and how we all must instill a commitment to nature in future generations. People were in tears. That same weekend, his restaurant was named the best in Victoria.

On the second day of the symposium, at breakfast, I pulled Shewry aside. We found a spot in one of the empty eating areas — soon to be packed with festival goers — to discuss who he is and what he does. As we were getting started, David Chang popped in out of nowhere and warned: "Don't hose him. He's one of the nicest guys around."

How did you come to be involved with this?
I'm friends with René.

How'd you become friends?
He came to Attica and ate, and we share some common interests. He's a very passionate guy and so am I. I mean, we do different food, but there is some crossover in philosophy — how we should treat the planet.

Maybe four months ago he rang me at 7 o'clock in the morning [laughs]. I see this blocked call at 7AM — I was up but I said, "I'm not answering that. Whoever that is can forget about it." I check my email and there's a message from him, "Can you pick up your fucking phone?" He explained that he was organizing his own symposium and asked if I could present. It sounded right up my alley. I'm a very non-commercial kind of guy and I like things that are pure and with a strong intention.

What makes you think that?
You walk into the tent and there's no sponsors. No massive labels or photo opportunities or any of that nonsense that comes with other more mainstream festivals. I'm not into that stuff. We don't endorse anyone at our restaurant, so when we come to a festival it's kind of strange to endorse something you don't believe in.

Secondly, because it's being run by a chef who is really exceptional and particular about things. The organization behind the scenes, the things you're not seeing, are amazing for this being their first go at it. There are a dozen Noma chefs running around organizing our ingredients. That's really impressive. I forgot my tripod which I was going to hang the pot over the fire and cook with. So I rang them and said I had forgotten it and that I was going to run out of the hotel and find one. And they immediately said, "No, no, no. You just go and relax and enjoy yourself. We'll run out and go get it for you." These guys are up shit's creek, totally busy, and they'll do that and they'll take risks. I like that. From a chef's point of view, that's great, because you're getting professionals and not the usual hotel staff. It's the level that you need.

Also, strikingly straight away, there's this emotional feeling. You hear René saying that he hasn't felt this way since he opened Noma, and those are powerful words. And then you talk to Daniel Patterson and he describes how nervous he was performing in front of this crowd. And he's a cool cat. It means so much to be here, and we want to present something that means something. Not the usual BS or self-posturing that you normally get. It's nice to come to a festival and not have to talk about all the fantastic things that you do. You get tired of that.

Not being familiar with your cooking, the emotional video you presented yesterday in which you forage along the seashore with your son struck me as very Noma. How does your cooking differ?
One difference is that I forage for my own ingredients, and it's something I've been doing since I was five years old. When I started Attica six years ago, I had never heard of René and was just going back to it based on my memories. The main difference is that it's profoundly different food in style and flavor.

Can you try to describe your style?
Our food, some of it is driven by memories and stories. Like when I was ten and gathering shellfish on a reef with my family. I had my back to the sea, and a wave came by and knocked me off and dragged me across the reef. It lacerated my back very badly and held me down, and then it happened again. I was pretty sure that I would perish. My father, my great hero, swam in and saved me. He took me home and put me in a cold shower — we were so far from the city that it wasn't really worth going to the hospital — and he washed the stone and sand out of my back. I looked down at the bottom of the shower and it was red with my own blood. That's a really vivid memory around food, and not too many people have those kinds of memories I don't think.

So when I was starting Attica as a very young cook I was frustrated because I was in a country with a very young food culture. I didn't want to do the same thing as everybody else and I wanted to something very different, something that speaks of the person that's making it. Therefore I look to those memories as inspiration. The stories are fine and well, but the dishes still have to taste good.

How do you translate a memory like that to the plate?
It's not a preparation that we do anymore, but it was a dish based around the ocean. It was evocative of the sea. It looked like a seaweed-covered rock. It was edible and it tasted delicious. This was nearly six years ago. I knew that to make it I had to get wild plants, so I started going to the ocean and picking as I had done when I was a child. Now everybody in the restaurant forages. Every single person in every section has to do it. And it has to be that way, because we don't have foragers in Australia that can pick the stuff for us. We kind of don't want that either, because we pick very close to service and we pick everything everyday. So I'll pick in the ocean in the morning and then drive in the city, which is 90 minutes away from my house. We also do a bit of urban foraging, even by the railroad, which is foraging in our direct environment. The idea behind it is to sort of manage our environment and use the things that are there. Then just before service I drive to another coast about fifteen minutes away and I pick seaweeds and beach plants from there. I think that's completely different from any other restaurant.

Let's talk about your story and your training.
That's interesting. I've always wanted to be a chef, since about the age of five. I was steadfast about that. I didn't really dig toys. I started out making béchamel, and I would put peas on it and put it on toast. Or make a really simple dish of stir fried carrots. The ingredients were sometimes minimal in that environment.

At about the age of ten I wrote to some restaurants in the city. Five of them didn't write back, but one did, and then I went and spent some time there each weekend for about three weeks. I remember going into the kitchen and seeing the cooks, that motley crew. One guy had an apron with chili peppers on it, another a bandana — it was a hardcore bunch. They were really liberated. They were inside this kitchen inside a big restaurant, but they ran that kitchen and it was theirs and they had control over it. I found that really intoxicating and inspiring. They treated me so well and they fed me, even though it wasn't an amazing restaurant. I am so grateful for it.

What happened after that?
After that I continued to cook in my spare time, and when I was sixteen, I was accepted to culinary school in New Zealand. I did forty hours a week there for two years. It was fantastic. There weren't any New Zealand chefs, unfortunately, as it was mostly guys who had come out from Europe with big hotel groups who had maybe married a New Zealander and were stuck there. And at that time, they were very frustrated because there was no appreciation for cooking or chefs in our culture. And these guys were very good. So they were bitter and they'd take it out on us.

Then after that I worked in good places, not really of an international standard, but places where they'd notice I was a creative person and give me opportunities. I worked in this hotel restaurant, for example, where I had the job that no chef really likes: making buffets and garnishing stuff. But I'd spend hours doing it and I was really lucky to have that opportunity.

Because you live so isolated as a child, you think a bit differently. We didn't have neighbors close by, and growing up I went to a school with seven students. Two of them were my sister and my mother was the teacher. And being a New Zealander, it's almost in our blood to try to innovate because we maybe have a chip on our shoulder for being so isolated. Back in that time, we didn't have the amazing toys that were being made in America. We had to make a lot of stuff ourselves. It was a DIY childhood.

Yeah, that was a theme that ran through much of your presentation.
That's very important to me and a major part of our success at Attica. We've been able to innovate with our equipment and build our own stuff when we haven't been able to afford it. Sometimes we'd find that stuff we'd make would turn out better than stuff that was commercially available anyway. I should say that foraging is a cool part of cooking, but it can't be the main thing. Cooking must be about cooking. It must be about the process and the ingredients, but if people can't cook at a really high level then it's meaningless. Just because you use foraged ingredients doesn't mean anything special.

Going back to the question of your training, you say that New Zealand really didn't have a big cooking culture back then. So did you look to any other countries for inspiration?
For me, my training is New Zealand, but actually I became very obsessed with Thai cooking. When I was probably 21, the chef David Thompson was in Australia, and I ate his food and it was very inspiring. I bought fifty books on Thai cooking over the years and practiced it all the time at home. I traveled to Thailand and ended up doing a stage with Thompson. I eventually became good at it — it's a really complicated cuisine. That changed my whole way of thinking about and seasoning food.

Do you do that at Attica?
When I began at Attica I was doing a fusion of the Thai cooking and my French background. I found that I couldn't bastardize it, though, and I also realized that I couldn't achieve a distinctive style of my own with that. But I never forgot the way things are seasoned or the balance of acid in food. And I think that's the real big difference in our cooking. I'm not saying what we do is better than anyone else, of course. It's just something that people notice when they come eat at Attica.

[We begin to hear Redzepi's megaphone off in the distance, inviting attendees back into the symposium tent]

Before we finish, do you have any thoughts about the potential impact this event will have?
It feels like it's going be like an octopus or something, with these tentacles that will reach out and touch communities where these emotions and thoughts haven't been before. I'm sure you've seen the enthusiasm on Twitter — I got like 50 or 60 @ mentions yesterday — and there are people who aren't even here who are excited about it. It feels like an opportunity to bring about a change. And it's nice to not speak out alone. When you're alone, you first of all feel alone and people often sense that there's an ulterior motive, so it's important to be together with others.

Being a chef is more than just about the cooking now. We have that responsibility. Some people don't want that responsibility, so things like this will help people expand that knowledge and realize these things, even if they don't believe in them. I predict that in five to ten years the consumers will be demanding this knowledge and this understanding — a kind of cleaner style of cooking — from restaurants.

We gotta go in there.

· All Ben Shewry Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Mad Foodcamp Coverage on Eater [-ENY-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]


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