Q&A: Ben Shewry of Attica

Becky Paskin - 23/01/2012

Melbourne restaurant Attica jumped 20 places to number 53 in last year's S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, when just a few years ago chef Ben Shewry admits the restaurant was on the brink of meltdown. With a cuisine that reflects nature with the utmost respect and translates Shewrys childhood memories on a plate, Attica is fast becoming the darling of Victoria in Australia. Attica has been lurking around the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list for some time, but has only really gained recognition in the past year. What effect has being on the list had on you and the restaurant?

We don't really think of other people taking an interest in us. I come from a very humble and remote background in New Zealand and it's really impossible for me to imagine attention or interest. When we came into the list for the first time at number 73 a coupleof years ago that was a huge turning point for us because when we started six years ago it was very difficult, we nearly went broke a few times but we managed to hang in there by the skin of our teeth. It takes a long time for you to establish your own personal style and for people to recognise that as something worth eating. But when we first came into the list we were amazed, and it was kind of like a light bulb went on for a lot of people and all of a sudden everybody knew about us in Australia and wanted to come. It felt like it meant a lot to the community here too. It felt bigger than just about us which was really cool. For a small country boy from New Zealand it's a dream come true. Since that moment the restaurant's been full every night for over two and a half years and we're still really busy and booked out a long way ahead.

What is your cooking style, and what are you trying to achieve with Attica?

The main thing is we want to be seen to be doing our own thing and not to copy. That's been my mission statement from the beginning six years ago. Because I'm an individual and I think people should cook to their strengths and their experiences in life and what they believe in, I try to do a style that speaks of the person creating it and not of other lands. Obviously I travelled the world when I was younger so there's an influence of that, but for chefs it needs to be something thats clearly identifiable as your own. That's the foremost importance to me, but secondly is that everybody that works here really enjoys their work and they feel its contributing to something that's important. I think that often in the hustle and bustle and argy bargy of top restaurants stuff the pleasure you derive from your work is swept aside and all the attention is focused on the pleasure of the guest. That's a paradox for me because it breaks my heart to think of customers having such a beautiful time in the dining room and there being such misery out the back. The way that my staff feel and the knowledge they gain from working here is super important. I also want to create an experience that is humble which has humility and where people are treated with respect when they come here to dine. Those are the sorts of things that matter to me. Also that we don't trash the environment that we live and work in and just try to acknowledge it a bit more and express that appreciation through our cooking.

How do you show that acknowledgement through your dishes?

We acknowledge it by being in touch with it and by connecting with it. Whether that's through everyday foraging for ingredients, everyday speaking with people that grow our food, or reading about the issues that surround food and its production. I'm really interested in the sustainability of the ocean and the sea thats probably my primary concern. That's why when you come to Attica you won't be served a piece of fish, from a large fish anyway. That's because in this country there's a lot of big species of fish under pressure and there's a lot of conflicting opinions and information which makes it very hard to decipher the truth and reality. So the best thing for me to do right now is to not serve it. I studied the topic extensively for two years before I came to this conclusion. I don't want to be contributing to the problem, I want to be helping to find a solution. In terms of expressing that on the plate the cooking is quite natural; it's not that we shun technology - technique, technology and progression are things that should be at the forefront of every modern chef. But the way to express that is on the plate in a way the customer can't see.

How do you balance your cooking style to present nature at its best with the use of modern cooking techniques?

I'm not into additives for one, so when I talk about modern technique I'm not talking about adding food manufacturing techniques to my cooking en masse, certainly not more than has been done historically at least. I'm more interested in the physical technique of things and looking at things with fresh eyes. Australia doesn't have a great culinary tradition yet so my mind is quite free. I'll approach an ingredient without any preconceptions about it. I would try to cook it three ways and then use which way I feel is best for me and which displays its natural uniquness.

You have a large background in Thai cooking having worked with David Thompson in the past, how does that influence your cooking nowadays?

You can't see it probably but it's still there as a strong influence and I'm really proud of the background I have in Thai food because its not a path that young chefs are looking at now, although they maybe should be. The Thais have incredible technique and a really amazing sense of balance that Western countries do not. There's much to learn from some of these cuisines that Westerners have neglected. When I started at Attica I was cooking not a fusion but two separate styles: my European training, and on the other side of the menu Thai dishes. Within four or five months I realised I couldn't bring the two together because I wanted to create my own style and if I kept continuing with the Thai I wouldn't be able to do that because I'd be replicating what I learned from David and the Thai people. So I moved away from that but I never forgot about the way Thai food is balances its seasoning. One of the most fundamental things about Thai cooking is the attention to detail in seasoning and the time spent on seasoning for 15-20 minutes until it's right is something I've brought over here. The desserts in Thailand are very complicated too - the techniques are as complicated as French techniques are. That's something that very few peple realise. Inspiration can come from all sorts of places, but the important thing to remember from inspiration, is that if you take an idea from another culture or cuisine you need to acknowledge that and not fob it off as your own, or it becomes this thing that becomes completely insensitive and just another 'wow' moment without any emotional feeling.

You say you try to be individual but while doing that your food is similar to the likes of Rene and Peter in their love of nature. How do you stay true to your own style with all these other influences around you?

There are many influences in my cooking. When I was younger I read a lot of books but for a three year period I stopped reading and started to look within myself a little more and in the last three or four years I've been forced to learn on my own terms. We also have a unique set of ingredients here that are very different from Denmark and even Sydney. There is some shared common ground and philosophy but the food is very different.

You once described your cuisine as 'emo food'. Why?

I wanted to create some dishes that spoke of my heritage and of when I was a child, so I looked to experiences both positive and negative from my youth. I created dishes from those memories, and some of those stories are quite dark, like nearly drownng and having my back lacerated and torn by the rocks. Afterwards I remember my father was washing the sand and stone out of my back and there was red blood collecting on the bottom of the white shower. Another memory was seeing a flock of geese needlessly slaughtered by mean boys. Both these memories have inspired dishes. So I use the term 'emo' tongue in cheek because it's a term for a genre of music thats emotional and down, but there is some truth in it too. It's boring taking your work too seriously.

Last year you led a presentation at MAD, the annual cooking forum organised by Noma. Do you think your appearance there coupled with your growing reputation in Melbourne will help Attica break into the Top 50 in April?

I don't know if it will because people have to travel here and it's a long way. We don't easily see as many people that vote. I'm sure that in the next few years the trickling down effect will bring more judges to Australia but they still have to like the experience. It's all very well talking about your philosophies and what you believe in but at the end of the day if you're not doing it on the plate there's little point talking about all that.

If you could choose one dish, which is your favourite?

Probably the one closest to my heart is the Potato Cooked in the Earth. Even if it's not the favourite for me to eat right now, it's probably the one I'm most fond of because it's a really unique dish and it speaks of my homeland New Zealand.