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I heard the voice of a GPS navigation woman before Ben’s. It was 9 a.m. on the dot Australian Eastern Standard Time and Ben Shewry was en route somewhere in the city of Melbourne. In a world of ‘top tens’, Michelin stars, chef hats and reviews from anyone who eats, Ben’s Attica is number 32 in the world, right now, by the only list that counts – The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Every chef on the list does something that makes you take a second look, that you can’t immediately put in a box or lump into a food trend. It takes a while to deconstruct, pull apart. There’s definitely no foam involved. And not one New Zealand restaurant made the 2015 list – Attica was the only Australian.
Well, that’s not quite right. Ben’s from Awakino, King Country. A farm that backs onto the sea. It’s where The Piano was shot, but don’t let that fool you. Ben’s dad is a farmer and his mum’s a teacher at the local school. They work hard and, like most farming families, they work as a team. Family’s not merely important, it’s survival. “They both come from hard-working families. They make their own luck and they’re always really positive people. They always instilled in us kids that if you do the right thing and work hard, apply yourself and be grateful for opportunities, then things will take care of themselves. And, I think that’s been true in my case.” Ben has three children – Kobe, Ella, Ruby – and his wife Natalia is chief financier and looks after suppliers. Just like his parents, they work as a team. “It’s the difference between being good and being great.”
Ben started as head chef at Attica about a decade ago. It wasn’t on any lists and it wasn’t making money. Like most chefs starting out, he made food he thought people wanted. Knock-offs. “I wanted strongly to develop something I was proud of and something that was distinct to me, my roots and my experiences in life; that’s a very slow, organic process and it took a few years. I was always a quiet person, and had quite strong, internalised ideas about my own work.”
Being yourself is hard. Made even harder in a commercial kitchen where people want familiar, something they’ve read about and something they’re not going to say was a waste of money.
“It’s a hard thing to explain. There’s nothing you can do to force it and you can’t learn it. You can’t buy it. You either have the ability to create things that are new and distinctive, or you don’t. And there have always, in a way, been two groups of chefs; there are the very creative ones, the very technical ones and the ones re-creating historically important dishes. Then there are people who can create dishes that people haven’t seen too much of, or a new take on an old idea.”
As with the other chefs on the list, it’s hard to pin down what kind of food Ben serves up. You could lump Attica’s food into a ‘farm to table’ scene with the likes of Noma, but that would be too easy.
“The best meal I ever ate was at Noma. It’s an incredible restaurant, but I’ve never been the type of person to say ‘I wish I could be like that’. I’m good friends with them and share some similar philosophies. Like, you should always work with the best products and you shouldn’t leave a place worse than how you found it. But, I don’t know about being part of something. It’s pretty hard to be part of a thing when you’re worlds apart. I don’t really think about it.”
When it comes down to it, Ben’s big on just being him. And that’s what makes Attica’s food noteworthy. “I think all people are best when they stay true to themselves. Rather than worry about what’s trendy, or what somebody else is doing. I didn’t ever want to be better than anyone else. I only wanted to be the best that I could be.”
Ben likes to pick between cobbles on Melbourne lanes and austere dunes on empty beaches to find edible plants people have forgotten about, or didn’t know existed. Foraging comes naturally.
“At first it was experimentation. It was about just being there and being in the wild areas. And eating things I didn’t recognise. I’ve been sick many, many times and through time I began to meet people who knew a little bit, but I’m basically informed by experimentation. There weren’t really books on it; I found out a bit through horticulturalists and I kind of instinctively know when things are edible.”
This curiosity about what’s around him and wanting to learn about what’s uniquely Australian led him to Attica’s most noted dishes. Such as Sea Tastes, Snow Crab and Sour Leaves, King George Whiting in Paperbark and Plum Pines. Saltbush is his favourite native plant to work with. “It’s a really prolific plant. It will be here forever along with the cockroaches. It’s always in season and it’s abundant and unique to Australia.”
Having a ready supply of lively produce that’s not laced with chemicals is hugely important to the kitchen. They have a 1200 square metre garden on Rippon Lea Estate with 70 or 80 plant varieties. It’s also only a two-minute walk to the restaurant. Although the garden is not certified organic, it adheres to organic principles. “It’s basically just adding seeds to soil, compost and water and that’s all. We don’t add any fertilisers of any kind, chemical or organic or otherwise. We never spray. And if something is overcome with bugs, we just pull it out, compost and start again. I’d say it’s more than organic. It’s just clean food. And ethical food is important to us.”
Ethical suppliers, or suppliers who treat their place and people with respect, is how Ben sees sustainability in the kitchen. It’s not enough to say you’re sustainable; you have to show it. Live and breathe it.
“I always look for a certain type of person when I’m considering dealing with buyers and other people. It’s not just the effect on the environment; I want to know I’m dealing with good people who look after their employees and who aren’t jerks. Because I don’t want to be associated with that type of person. We can’t know all of them face to face and on a personal level in different parts of the country. But certainly, a good many of them we know and can trust.”
Although Ben’s a celebrity chef – or rather, a chef that’s turned into a bit of a celebrity – all that brutish ego and larger-than-life boasting and self-proclamation isn’t him. Not even in the slightest. He’s humble. Quietly spoken. He just wants to cook quality food that people respect.
I asked him how he would like to be remembered.
“I think if you look back on your life, the people you remember with the most fondness are, evidently going to be the people that were the kindest to you. If you can just muster it to not overlook people… to take the time to see that person when you’re walking down the street. A smile, or a polite ‘hello’ … a little gesture that might make a big difference. Never underestimate kindness.”