Ben Shewry grew up in North Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island, but has become synonymous with Australian cuisine. At Attica, the Melbourne restaurant that currently ranks #32 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Shewry has developed a global reputation for seasonal, hyper-local cooking with a clear sense of place. Childhood memories and his love of the land and water help to inspire deeply personal dishes. Shewry was in Los Angeles to cook at two events for the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl: Fireside Chat & Collaborative Dinner with Curtis Stone at Gwen, and an Australian-style barbecue called Attica Invades Everson Royce Bar. The chef took time to explain his vision and approach.
Joshua Lurie: How do you define innovation in cooking?
Ben Shewry: For me most of the innovation I have found in cooking in the past 6 years has been inspired by looking outside of the field of cooking and hospitality. Looking to other creative fields like the arts, music and culture. To me innovation in cooking is defined by doing something that you love in an open and honest way that is uniquely yours.
Joshua Lurie: What are the criteria for a dish to make the Attica menu? How have those guidelines evolved since you first opened the restaurant?
Ben Shewry: The criteria is based on a feeling. That feeling comes when all the stars align, the combination of flavours, textures, seasonality, sustainability and cultural interest arrive at a point of excitement. It’s not until you feel that excitement as a cook at Attica that the dish will be ready to come onto the menu. These guidelines have been the same since the beginning. We never repeat dishes; once they are gone, they are gone forever.
Joshua Lurie: Tell me the story about the most recent dish you created. What was your inspiration and approach?
Ben Shewry: We are currently working on a new dish in collaboration with Melbourne artist Tom Gerrard. Its going to be an immersive experience for our guests with art, food and good times all playing equal roles and supporting each other. The inspiration for the dish is a combination of how the migrant culture influences the food we eat in Melbourne and the sometimes unappreciated neighbourhoods where this food was born. Tom and I both have migrant backgrounds so this is a feels like a fitting direction for us to take.
Joshua Lurie: How has being named to The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list changed your reality as a chef and restaurateur?
Ben Shewry: Being in the Top 50 has been amazing. Its undoubtedly bought a lot of attention to both me personally and the restaurant. Always for the work we do though, which is a cool thing, not a celebrity thing.
Joshua Lurie: Your “Chef’s Table” episode focused on the struggle to balance family with career. Maybe this has already happened, but what would you tell your children if they expressed interest in becoming chefs?
Ben Shewry: Two of my children have casually expressed an interest in cooking. My advice to them is the same advice I would give to them no matter what occupation they chose: do it if it is 100% what you love. If there is any doubt do something else because people only really succeed in the hospitality industry if they are prepared to dedicate their lives to the job.
Joshua Lurie: Pulling from all of the dishes you’ve served at Attica, construct a dream dinner. Also, which people would join you at the table?
Ben Shewry: The current menu because I have a dislike for any of the dishes from the past. In saying that, the Simple Dish of the Potato Cooked in the Earth it was Grown that I am cooking with Curtis is an exception. It is a dish that is inspired by the Maori culture and childhood lessons I received growing up in New Zealand. I would invite the band Yo La Tengo, my late grandmother Lois Turner, my buddy and fellow chef Neil Perry, my family, my best mate Jason Chong, and Ray and Charles Eames.
Joshua Lurie: What would it take for you to open a restaurant in New Zealand? How different do you think that restaurant would be from Attica?
Ben Shewry: It would take me moving to New Zealand for that to happen. I don’t think I could run a restaurant from another country and give it the attention it deserves. It would be completely different. In Australia it’s been a continuous process of learning about people and culture. I know New Zealand like the back of my hand, inspiration there comes easily and freely. A big part of that is down to the cultural differences around the two countries and their treatment of indigenous people.