A few hours ago, Ben Shewry, the chef of Attica in Melbourne, added another accolade to his growing list: Gourmet Traveller's best chef in Australia. In the past few years, Shewry has come to prominence and joined the ranks of some of the world's most respected chefs with cooking that's soulful, reflects a unique sense of place, and exhibits serious contemporary cooking chops. He's done it against many odds. For several years, the restaurant was mostly empty, and Shewry was frustrated by the obvious challenges that posed. These days, he's able to thrive in and celebrate where he is, mostly by emphasizing a DIY philosophy and working to keep things fresh. Here, in part one of this interview, Shewry talks about his off-the-cuff Tuesday dinners and his forthcoming test kitchen.
The last time we had a long conversation was during the first MAD. To start very generally, how have things been going?
A whole lot has happened since the first time we talked. Life has gotten pretty crazy since then.
It's been full-on, and in a good way. Things feel different. There's a lot more interest from everywhere in the restaurant, which is great for us but also hardcore.
Would you say that's due mainly to MAD?
It's due to a number of a things, but I don't think MAD hurt. There was Cook It Raw, as well. We have many, many young cooks coming in for work experience from America and other parts of the world. It's surreal for us to see that people actually know about the restaurant elsewhere. I went out to California to Manresa, it was very surprising to see how many people know about Attica. The way I grew up and where I grew up — in a little neighborhood in New Zealand — you sort of didn't think you'd ever have success.
Do you think people are surprised by what they discover at the restaurant compared to what they thought it would be like?
I think people who arrive here are surprised by how hands-on and indie this still is. This is a high-end place, but it is about heart and working really hard and submitting yourself to the place. I think people get inspired by that. The staff have to do way more than cook: they have to grow plants for their own sections, they have to mop the floor, and it's a different restaurant compared to others in that regard. We never have had a lot of resources, so we need to work hard.
You kind of feel like you're in the shit all the time. Today is my day off, and I realized I had to finish a story for Fool Magazine and that I need to also write the menu for Tuesday, since that's our experimental night. We do all-new dishes on this one night. We've been doing it for five years.
Tell me more about that. It's one night a week?
Just for one night. This is the story: back when we started Attica, we had no money, we had no customers, and we were basically fucked, broke. The worst night of them all was Tuesday. We'd be lucky if we did two customers. I had been thinking about test kitchens and stagiaires at restaurants in Europe, and I thought I'd never have those. So, how am I going to develop my cuisine faster? So I came up with Chef's Table, when I'd write a completely new menu based on anything that comes to my head the night before. I'd write a five-course menu while my kids were in bed and make it a lot cheaper than the other nights. We honestly never know if something is going to go right. It's a really uncomfortable thing, cooking something you've never cooked before and never will again to fifty-five customers.
Do any of the dishes make it to the regular menu?
No, not usually. It's very rare that we like something. Sometimes I'll see a glimmer of hope in something because we're cooking something in a new way and then we'll develop that. Then to get that on the menu takes anywhere from a month to over a year. There's a dish we recently finished that took eighteen months to nail. Most of the time, though, I let things go that aren't working because you don't want to force it. Usually, you have this idea in your mind that these combinations will work well, but it can really be crap.
I said I had thought about the restaurants in Europe, but they were also too far away. Even though I have many friends cooking around the world, they are still too far. So I did look to local chefs. Some of them, over time, stopped developing, and I was kind of bummed about that and wanted to work to avoid it. So this now satisfies the customers that want to see change and making sure the staff doesn't get bored or filled with angst. It's crazy, off-the-cuff, and a bit different from what you see at many high-end restaurants. It's become the hardest night to book, but it still scares me and makes me feel uncomfortable.
Are you being hard on yourself or do you think the food can often be objectively shit?
It can definitely be objectively shit. It's impossible to make a dish straightaway great without repeating things that you have tested in the past. I'll attack ingredients I'm not good at tackling and techniques I'm not familiar with.
What are some of your weaknesses?
There are many. For a long time, it was offal because I lived on a farm and saw my dad butchering meat. It was rough, and I sort of avoided meat for a while. Eventually, I confronted that and started figuring it out.
And who were some of the local chefs you looked up to?
Neil Perry, David Thompson, and my mentor Mark Limacher are the ones that immediately come to mind. Those guys are still relevant and never got jaded. Tetsuya Wakuda and Peter Gilmore are two others. It was rather surreal that these guys ended up becoming my friends after I moved here from New Zealand as a young kid. I never thought I'd have a test kitchen either, and now we will.
What are the details of that?
We signed the lease on the building right next to Attica and we are going to build a really incredible research lab — a food lab.
How big is it going to be and how many people will work there?
It's going to be small but state-of-the-art. There'll be a bedroom upstairs and an office downstairs. In the long-term we have bigger plans for it, but right now I can tell you that there will be two people working in it. It's going to be me and an assistant. I'll be there four days. We're basically taking the creative side out of the little kitchen within Attica, which can be pretty brutal. It's disruptive.
It's going to be research-based. It won't be just developing and researching for new dishes, but also about exploring new products. We're really interested in growing plants for the restaurant. We want to focus on native produce, which has always been important to me. They're really under-appreciated here.
Even when people say restaurant culture has improved so much in Australia?
Yeah. Food and restaurant culture has gotten way better, but it's still heavily influenced by Europe. I'll admit that there are some very good truffles in the world, but I believe that the ones with no flavor are way more common. I don't serve them, especially because they're not from here. We want to do something with integrity. Does what we do have integrity in terms of where it's grown? Who is making it? Do we want to serve that to our customers? Why don't we worship something from our culture? We have berries and traditions that go back thousands of years. You have to deliver something good and honest to customers who have made an effort to come to the restaurant. You can't rip them off. We deal with about 150 different suppliers, which can get extremely complicated, but it's for a reason.
Tomorrow, in part two, Shewry talks about how his cooking has changed over the years and his new, 300-page book.