Head Chef and Owner of Attica.
From sous chef to one of Australia's most well renowned faces, the journey of famed chef Ben Shewry and the makings of multi award winning hatted restaurant Attica is a humble yet inspiring story. Beginning work as a junior sous chef in 2005, Ben was loving his job but on a modest wage was in need to find something more stable for his wife Natalia and son Kobe. This was when he saw the position of Head Chef at Attica advertised.
Impressing Attica's then owner David Maccora, Ben landed the praised position and started planning a new menu for Attica, pouring into it complete heart and soul. What resulted was a menu that encompassed all the influences from Ben’s upbringing, that made use of local produce and anything he could forage from urban surrounds. For the first three years that Ben was at Attica, he and David worked diligently together through up and downs and through empty, sleepless nights. Failure was not an option for Ben and the creations continued, pushing the boundaries of a diner’s expectations.
It wasn’t until that one night after a review by The Age’s John Lethlean that Ben was given a taste of his future - a score of 16/20. An influx of diners was temporary praise but the long term effects pushed Ben to revolutionise Attica. As he states in 'Origin', "to make a small restaurant busy every night and to remain viable, we had to come up with a way of making Tuesdays as attractive to dine at Attica as on the weekends.”
Thus the famous 'Chef’s Table' was invented. Ben describes The 'Chef’s Table' menu as "a living, breathing thing, that evolved week to week.
"I work on it during the weekend and let the season dictate what they may in terms of ingredients; many of the dishes are inspired by memories of my childhood in rural New Zealand.”
Since the creation of the Chef’s Table, over 1,200 unique and challenging dishes have been created.
AGFG was lucky enough to catch up with Ben and ask him a few questions about where he's been, where he is now and where he will be in the future.
AGFG:Like you say in your book, foraging is not something new, despite its growing popularity. Do you think Attica and yourself have helped shape this trend – do you think this second nature of yours will become second nature to other chefs around the country?
Ben: I am not sure. I do what I do because it is second nature to me; it goes back to my family history and is something I learnt to do with my father on the family farm. Foraging was something that I began to do almost 9 years ago now, because we didn’t have access to the array of ingredients I now have access to in Attica’s garden. So previously, we didn’t grow anything and I wasn’t really happy with what I could get from the markets because all the restaurants were using the same produce. It was obvious for me to go pick things from the wild or from along to coast where I lived because they were fresher and I like using the ingredients I pick on the day for dishes we serve on that day.
AGFG:How are you passing on your knowledge to your children and your customers?
Ben: Through everyday life, my ever changing menu and of course my book, 'Origin'. I was as honest as I could be in 'Origin' and I hope that has passed onto everyone that reads it.
AGFG: You mention your mentors inexplicitly a few times in Origins, can you share with us who your greatest culinary inspirations are and the people who still remain your mentors?
Ben: Without a doubt Mark Limacher is the man for me. He has been incredible, an incredible boss, now mentor and friend. He was the first person to show me what food was about before a later David Thompson from Nahm in Bangkok. I must also say Mark Best and Peter Gilmore have also been great supporters of me and Attica, so they are great friends and they have offered me a lot of advice over the years.
AGFG:What are you favourite native Australian fruits?
Ben: I like all of them, but my favourite is a fruit that is hard to access - we are probably one of the very few restaurants to use it just because we have our own tree in our garden. It’s plum pine. It has a small round purple fruit, which has a slight sweet pine flavour. It’s kind of gooey and you can never get it through the market fresh as it needs to be eaten fresh on the day it has been picked. It’s our favourite because it is so unique and we have access to a tree and we can pick it just before service. Lemon aspen also has a really nice flavour as well.
AGFG:If I walked into your garden at home what would I find?
Ben: At the moment you would find a whole lot of flowering Asian greens, a tomato plant, thyme and oregano, celery, spring onions and a lot of parsley that we grow for our guinea pig. It is my daughter’s Ella’s garden so everything is up to her, but my wife and I help her with it.
AGFG:What culture and cuisines inspire you most?
Ben: When I was younger I was taught the French style of cooking, so that was what I learnt when I was first becoming a chef. When I was in my early 20’s I discovered Thai cuisine and that was a huge inspiration. When I started my own restaurant I really wanted to bring something of me out into the restaurant so originally New Zealand roots can be seen but then I have moved to more Australian cuisine.
AGFG:What do you love about your business?
Ben: Probably working with the young teens I have at Attica as well as the absolutely outstanding team I work with. It is probably the most enjoyable thing.
AGFG:Where were you and what you were doing when you were voted number 21 in The S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List?
Ben: We were there. We knew we were in the Top 50 but didn’t know we were number 21 - we thought we were 50 or 49. As they were working backwards we were getting more and more excited. I think some people thought that we weren’t on the list and then we hit number 21. We were so surprised and amazed.
AGFG:How does it feel being named The Age Good Food Guide Chef of the Year for 2014?
Ben: It was really humbling and totally unexpected for me and I believe it is just a great reflection of my team.
AGFG:What does the future hold for Ben Shewry and Attica?
Ben: We are just about finished with our research kitchen, which will give us a very nice space to focus on the development of dishes and research ingredients we don’t know or understand as well as how to learn to grow ingredients that are new and exciting to the menu.
The Australian Good Food and Travel Guide has awarded Attica 4 Chef Hats (19/20), making it one out of three of the best restaurants in Australia.