“It’s hard to imagine how I decided to become a chef at all,” says Ben Shewry in the opening of his Chef’s Table episode. Growing up in rural New Zealand, Shewry had almost no exposure to the culinary world, but his time exploring the countryside as a child later inspired his style of cooking with foraged ingredients.
Who is Ben Shewry?
New Zealand native Ben Shewry is the chef and owner of Attica, a renowned restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. Attica is on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, most recently ranking at number 32. Shewry has been influential in defining Australian cuisine by experimenting with native and foraged ingredients. Attica is known for its “experimental Tuesdays,” which Shewry introduced as a way to test new dishes more quickly without closing the restaurant (the restaurant has since opened a test kitchen).
What was Shewry’s journey through the culinary world like?
Shewry grew up in rural New Zealand in the 1980s. With no television or video games to distract him, Shewry found other ways to keep busy and be creative. He was allowed to take long hiking and camping trips at a young age. When he was 14, Shewry got his first restaurant experience working at a small cafe where he could watch customers eating his food through a window in the kitchen. “It was the most incredible feeling,” he says. “I was hooked.”
When Shewry was 27 years old he was working as a cook in Melbourne. At this time, his wife had just had their first child and Shewry needed to find a head chef job in order to make ends meet. At the time he lived in the same neighborhood as Attica and says he “thought it had good bones, but no soul.” He applied to be executive chef of the restaurant and got the job, not realizing that the restaurant was $150,000 in debt. Attica was struggling to fill seats and Shewry’s first menu was a flop. “The future for me was trying to develop my own voice in cooking,” he says. “I wanted to create something that was meaningful to me.”
Shewry took a new direction that refocused on native Australian ingredients. The restaurant won awards, but wasn’t hugely successful until it landed on the World’s 50 Best list. “It’s such a funny situation to find yourself in when you went from having no customers to having more customers than you can ever need,” Shewry says.
What is his “aha” moment?
As a child, Shewry went with his family to harvest shellfish in a cove near his home in New Zealand. Shewry almost drowned in the ocean. The memory of nearly drowning came back to him as he was trying to come up with a new seafood dish. “I wanted to create a dish that invoked that sensation in somebody who was eating it, which is kind of macabre,” the chef recalls. “I went down to the beach and there was a boat ramp and the sea was really wild... And this little wave leapt up the boat ramp and it dispersed. And what it left was the tiniest, tiniest bit of bright green seaweed.”
Shewry says he picked up the seaweed and then looked around and found all sorts of other edible plants in close proximity. Those sea plants were eventually incorporated into a dish called Sea Tastes at Attica. “It was the first moment of creating something myself that wasn’t like what other people were creating,” Shewry says.
What are his most quotable moments?
- On how he reinterprets memories of familiar dishes to evoke emotional responses in diners: “I’m trying to take people back to a time in their lives when people who loved them cooked for them in a way that was really meaningful.”
- On what it’s like to work with native ingredients that haven’t been used before: “You’re always thinking, ‘One day I’m going to unlock the greatness of that ingredient. I’m going to find the most delicious and most natural way of cooking with it.’”
- On how he perfects new dishes: “You’ll have a plate in front of you and it’s not right and you’re just trying to grab that thing that’s going to bring everything together that you haven’t thought of before. I’m think right back to beginning of my first earliest memories of cooking when I was five and all of that experience of cooking through childhood right up to now... everything you ate as a human being make up your memory palate.”
- On why he does what he does at Attica: “There’s the feeling of elation when you create something new. It’s greater than almost any sensation in your life.”
- On finding a balance between work and family: “Food shouldn’t be some sort of artistic torture. It’s got to be something uplifting and fulfilling and delicious and it should invigorate people. But if you’re not happy with your life how can you possibly achieve that?”