In part two of this interview with Melbourne, Australia's Ben Shewry (see part one), the chef talks about how his cooking has changed over time, his forthcoming book Origin ("It's massive!"), his connection to his native New Zealand, and finally, how to keep things raw and independent when your restaurant is growing, expanding, and getting famous.
When I first learned about you, you emphasized storytelling in cooking. You mentioned, for instance, a dish inspired by you almost drowning in the ocean. Is that still there, or have things shifted to focusing on native ingredients?
It's still there, to a point. If I'm telling someone that I am serving these berries and ingredients because we don't appreciate our own culture, that's pretty heavy shit. You need to have some fun, as well. It shouldn't be a social lecture. We're pretty subtle about that. I learned this through doing my first book, which we're wrapping up. It took me three years to write.
My friend who's a journalist took a look at the book and said to me, "Ben, why aren't you out in New Zealand cooking in the woods, doing some sort of Faviken thing?" There was some truth in that. You know, many of my formative experiences happened in New Zealand, because I grew up there. At the beginning of Attica, since I had just gotten there, I told stories about New Zealand and drew from those memories. But as time went on, I realized that I could tell stories about my new home. I got more confident and learned more about the country.
Do any specific examples come to mind?
One of the dishes that took a really long time to come up with — like over a year — came about because I was driving here along the highway and was so damn tired. I pulled over and decided I would take a short nap, even though there are signs that specifically tell you not to do that, and set my alarm for a few minutes. I ended up having this really intense dream about beehives — the way they looked, the colors, how they're close to where we live. So I took that as a sign that I needed to create a dish inside a beehive. It was going to be a honey dessert.
I really liked the concept of the dish and put it into the book, but I still didn't have it down, because it was a honey dessert, which is difficult to pull off. The morning of the photoshoot for the book came, and I didn't know what the hell to do. It had been almost a year and a half working on it. I had tried almost every conceivable thing, and it just sucked.
Honestly, five minutes before shooting it just came to me. It was spot on. I made it, I shot it, and the dish was there. Why do chefs work eighty or ninety hours? Why do they bust their asses so much? These are questions I sometimes get asked, and that example is the perfect answer. You work on something for a ridiculous amount of time, and the feeling you get when you pull it off is incredible. That could end up being the best three or four minutes of your life. It's so powerful. If you continue to have that feeling in your work, then it pushes you. When that's gone, then it's time to do something. I don't get excited about my dishes often or like to eat my own food, but I feel pretty great about that one.
Will the book get published in the U.S.?
I don't know. My understanding is that my publisher, Murdock Books, who make flipping incredible things, distribute to the UK and Australia and New Zealand. It's definitely be available on Amazon. But they are also going to try, I think, to sell it to publishers in the U.S.
Tell me more about the book.
It's called Origin. It's my story, I guess. It's part storybook — I spent years writing stories in detail about my life, about ingredients, about the environment — and part recipe book. It's also part photo book. The photos are incredible. A close friend of mine who nobody has heard of shot them. He doesn't give a shit about being known. He shoots architecture usually, not food. It ended up being great. The landscapes in New Zealand are out of control, and it'll be great for Americans to see it, because they don't usually get to see.
Making a book was one of the most intense experiences of my whole life. The book is huge! It's like 300 pages. One of the biggest books ever! I did 65 dishes, and each dish has like five or six recipes. It's pretty comprehensive.
Now that you mentioned New Zealand again: what's your connection to that country now?
I have a New Zealand passport, and my mother and father are still there. That's it really. It's where I grew up, but I really feel much more at home in Australia. New Zealand will always be important to me, though. I'm an Australian chef and a New Zealander. I went from being a cook to being a chef when I was Australia, really. I wouldn't be having this conversation with you if I hadn't moved to Australia. I wouldn't be friends with David Chang. That's actually an important part of the mission statement of the book.
I'd like to wrap up by going back to something you mentioned at the beginning: keeping things raw and DIY. How do you maintain that when you're getting all these awards, building a high-tech test kitchen, and working on a massive book?
That's an important question. It's always in my mind. People associate success with money and glossiness. Those are things you well know that I detest. Being flawless, being glossy — those, to me, are the least interesting things. It's more important to be independent and have the freedom to do what you want. That's the great thing about Attica. We do what we want.
The key to keeping things raw and indie, I think, is reminding yourself constantly that you are shit. When you think that you are crap, that you are not great, you are hungry to learn and progress and get better. You can't feel jaded. The other important thing is that you have to keep cooking and working with the young guys. You need to be a part of it. You can't get disconnected from that. I travel maybe four or five times a year, but the rest of the time, I'm at the restaurant. The moment that I don't feel happy doing that anymore, it's time to move on.