Trailblazing chef Ben Shewry talks to Élodie Nöel about the Australian food scene and the dishes that made an impact on his life.
Born in New Zealand, Ben Shewry is the head chef of Attica in Melbourne. One of six chefs featured in the inaugural season of Chef's Table on Netflix, his cooking is heavily influenced by his childhood upbringing in the natural surroundings of North Taranaki. In his own restaurant, Ben has been using ingredients native to Australia. It was a new idea when he opened, and success wasn’t immediate. Eventually, locals and critics embraced his philosophy, and Attica has received several prestigious awards in the past few years.
What is your first memory of taste?
All of my first memories of taste are around the farm where I grew up in New Zealand. I don’t know if it was one specific thing, but years before everyone was talking about sustainability, using local things or growing your own, my parents were just doing all of it. They were raising sheep and cattle on the farm, they were harvesting wild animals from the bush for food, and my mother was growing a lot of vegetables. We also had a coastline close by and we could get a lot of wild shellfish. We ate wild berries and other plants that were around. It was just a way of existing because my parents didn’t have a lot of money but we always had enough food.
Probably one of the most important and earliest cultural memories was learning about the hangi, which is a traditional cookery method used by the Maori people. It’s an underground earth oven, it’s unlike anything else and a beautiful way to cook. It brings very distinctive flavours, because when you cook that way you are returning vegetables to the earth they grew in, and they are flavoured a second time. It’s a very unique way of cooking and it’s really cool.
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
I was five years old when I decided to be a chef, and I'm not quite sure where the idea came from. I was born in 1977, and at that time in New Zealand there was no reason to be a chef. It wasn’t celebrated - it was being like a street cleaner, it wasn't a profession that parents wanted for their children. But I knew nothing was going to stop me.
What is the dish that could make you cry?
I really like it when I can feel the pulse of the person who cooked a dish, when I can feel someone genuinely passionate. Recently in London we went to Spitalfields Market, and there were three Nigerian men making the most amazing lamb stew with rice. They were using their culture in a beautiful way, I could tell that it would be delicious before I tasted it - I saw them from afar, there were about 15 food stalls but theirs' was the only one I bought from because I could sense their great energy and enthusiasm. I felt a connection. People who don’t have passion in life cook the worst food. People who are truly living are passionate about everything. With these guys, I felt their hearts in their cooking.
READ MORE: My life in plates: Rosio Sanchez
What is the dish or food trend you don’t understand?
Firstly, there should be no such thing as trends, ever. There is no need to follow other people - just find what feels right for you and follow that path. Do it with integrity and commit to it for the long term. I think anybody who is basing their business on trends won’t be around in five years’ time, whereas quality lasts forever.
In terms of food, I don’t understand anybody who doesn’t focus on ingredients first. The biggest part of being great at cooking is being great at selecting ingredients. I’m talking about the sustainability of the ingredients, the deliciousness of them, the integrity of the person who harvested or grew them; it’s crucial.
One thing I don't understand is when things get too complicated with food. I like it to be minimal. In Attica, we work with this huge range of indigenous ingredients, they are so different and so remarkable that the less you do to them, the better - sometimes, we do absolutely nothing to them, we just put them on a plate.
What is the dish you wish you had created?
None. I mean I love lasagna, but I don’t ever wish I'd invented it. I do my own personal thing.
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
I’m an open book so there is nothing I can’t admit! I’m pretty clean living. It’s not an embarrassing thing but I really like Frank's Hot Sauce. It’s really great with boiled eggs actually!
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
We live in this Oceania/Asia region, and my life is incredibly enriched by having all these Asian cuisines on my doorstep. My opinion is that beyond Asia, Australia does Asian food the best. It’s a blessing to be able to eat Vietnamese pho whenever I want it at a really high level, or to go and get fried rice, or dumplings. I’m passionate about fried rice, I could really eat it every day.
What is the dish you are the proudest of?
I don’t have any signature dishes because we always kill our darlings. Our menu changes and the dishes never come back. There is a course in our menu where we ask the customer to get up from their table and to go in the back of Attica, there is kind of a backyard and there is an art installation which is interacting with food. It changes every nine months, we are working on the new one at the moment and it’s about migration and how we are all connected.
Attica represents 18 different nationalities, we are a very diverse group. In the kitchen, there are 25 chefs and only one of them was born in Australia. A lot of the modern success of Australia was built on migrants. If you are not First Nations people, you are an immigrant. This new dish is about our community, the Attica staff, our 2,300 suppliers, the direct community in Melbourne and the larger community in Australia. It’s about celebrating our differences rather than tolerating them.
What is the dish that reminds you of your mum?
Lasagna. We have no Italian heritage, but mum always made a very personal lasagne. It was a special occasion dish in my family, we had it on birthdays, on Christmas Day.
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
My partner Kylie loves Thai food and I studied Thai food extensively as a young man, I don’t cook this food anymore but it would be something from the classic Thai repertoire. Maybe a coconut sticky rice and mango, where you make your own coconut cream.
What is your death row dish?
Kylie and I were actually talking about this the other day, and it’s funny because we thought of lots of things, lasagna, spaghetti bolognese. I also love peas, I like them with lasagna which she can’t understand! She was also talking about the fact that we just went to Neal's Yard Dairy in London, so we thought we’d also want all the cheese! It would probably be simple things though, things that remind me of my youth.
Is there another dish that was particularly significant in your life?
Learning how to cook fish the traditional way, as taught by an Aboriginal elder, has been very important to me. My friend Uncle Noel Butler taught me how to cook fish his traditional way, he is a Budawang man. He selects a special tree from the forest and that tree burns to ashes and not ember, which is very important, and he cooks the whole fish in the ashes which makes a sort of shallow pit, it cooks really slowly and it’s succulent and delicious. There is no caramelisation on the skin at all. When you take it out of the ashes, after about one hour, you peel the skin off and it’s just very moist.
This technique influenced me a lot, it taught me about aboriginal culinary history and aboriginal cuisine, it’s something that woke me up a little bit. As a chef, you travel the world, studying cooking, refining techniques, and I had never heard of something like that before, and that’s humbling.
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.