Ben Shewry is the chef and owner of Attica, named in the world's top 20 restaurants in 2018. A native of New Zealand, he moved to Melbourne in 2002, exploring native Australian ingredients that have made his Melbourne restaurant famous around the world. Ben was featured in the first season of Netflix series 'Chef's Table' and despite every accolade possible in the food world, his creative passion is as down to earth as it gets. We spoke to Ben about inspiration in Melbourne, the city's diverse culture and the future of native Australian food.
ON WHERE YOU’RE FROM
I’m from the region of Taranaki which is on the west coast of the north island of New Zealand, about half way between Wellington and Auckland.
ON MOVING TO MELBOURNE
I moved here in 2002 when I was 25 years old. I’d worked in what I would call the best place in New Zealand at the time, and to really expand my knowledge and broaden my horizon I felt I had to come to Melbourne because the restaurants at the time were on another level.
ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MELBOURNE
It’s home to me first and foremost, I love the city. To be honest I moved away from the city to Ocean Grove after living in Melbourne for about 5 years, I moved to Ocean Grove for about 8 years, and 2 years ago I moved back to Melbourne, so I’ve fallen in love with it and explored it all over again. I spent a lot of time exploring the city when I first got here, 2 full days a week just exploring the city, the food culture, all the neighbourhoods that nobody writes about or cares about. All the unloved places in Melbourne. I spent a lot of time in different ethnic communities which informed my relationship with the city in a lot of ways. It’s definitely the best city in the world to live in for me.
ON MELBOURNE IN ONE WORD
Independent I would say, because I feel like the city allows me this creative independence.
ON YOUR PASSION FOR NATIVE AUSTRALIAN INGREDIENTS
Growing up where I did in Taranaki, New Zealand, that’s where I was exposed to and first learned about first nation peoples culture, Maori culture, indigenous culture. So growing up with the hangi, the traditional cooking method of the New Zealand Maori, and growing up with the marae, the traditional meeting place of the New Zealand Maori, this was an everyday thing for me, learning the language at school, having Maori friends and a mother who spoke a lot of the language, and it was just what we did. When I moved to Australia it was a very stark contrast in 2002, I just didn’t see culture here and I didn’t see indigenous culture, it’s not a part of broader society really, and that was kind of shocking to me.
My interest of Attica started off with all of my personal experiences of my own culture and heritage and those informed the cooking, and over time my interest in indigenous Australian ingredients and therefore the culture got stronger and stronger, because in my opinion you can’t take the ingredients and not have some knowledge of the culture and the people. So for me it was really important that I be able to pass on some of that knowledge and tradition to people eating the ingredients if they were interested.
I spent a lot of time exploring the city when I first got here.. the food culture, the neighbourhoods that nobody writes about or cares about. All the unloved places in Melbourne”.
ON A NATIVE INGREDIENT YOU HAVEN’T TRIED YET
I’d like to work with the native Australian grape, that’s something that I haven’t had the opportunity to really work with yet, because I’d love to make something to drink from it, I think that would be mind blowing. It’s almost every week there’s something that we learn about that we haven’t had that we can’t get, that’s not been cultivated that only exists in the wild, so there’s always something new that you want to try.
ON WHAT AUSTRALIAN FOOD REPRESENTS NOW AND IN THE FUTURE
I think now it represents multicultural society, this history of migration. In Melbourne you can get very good Vietnamese food, very good Chinese, Greek food, Italian food. In the area I work in there is a large Jewish community so you can get Jewish food. We do a good job of representing the different migrations that came here and influenced us, and I think that the final part really is the acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people through their cooking, because while you can sense the waves of migration here, you can’t really sense the first nation people through their food at the moment, not often anyway. Their culture is still alive and thriving but it’s not represented in a broader society enough. So I think it would be really nice to see a future where indigenous people are really included in that conversation about what is Australian food. Not just the ingredients but the people themselves and the culture. I think for people coming in from overseas, that’s kind of what you want to see. Whenever I travel to France for example, I don’t want to eat sushi in France, I want to eat French food, something traditional. When people come to Australia from overseas I think they want to eat something that has a sense of country. I think we’re coming to that but we want to be careful that we’re not just doing it in a tokenistic way. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people need to be included and that’s the bottom line.
ON YOUR CREATIVE INSPIRATION
Generally I’m not really that interested in what’s going on in my industry, and that’s not to pay and disrespect to the many amazing people that work in food in Australia, just for me it really is a personal journey and I’m not influenced by other people’s cooking. I love to go and eat other people’s cooking to enjoy their personal take on it.
For me particularly in the last six years I’m really influenced by learning and understanding about cultural aspects of our country, that’s hugely inspiring. Art is a big inspiration, my father is a fine artist and I have a lot of artist friends and they are really inspiring. Music is a huge inspiration that’s always fuelled my creativity. My team at Attica is a big inspiration, there’s quite a big creative team there in both front of house and back of house in the kitchen, and creativity and development is very much a shared thing which I direct but it’s very much a team effort, so there’s a lot of inspiration with those great people as well. Just having good positive experiences, adventure is really inspiring, you know you can be somewhere and not think that anything really exciting or interesting is going to happen , and then some major reveal will happen and you think wow I never thought about it that way and we did this.
I think now Australian food represents multicultural society..The final part really is the acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people through their cooking, because while you can sense the waves of migration here, you can’t really sense the first nation people through their food at the moment.
ON CONDITIONS FOR CREATIVITY
Most of the time inspiration and creativity is about keeping yourself in a really healthy headspace. Focussing on your mental health if you’re a creative person, or any person obviously, but for a creative person focussing on living an engaged and healthy life as much as you can, is really really important to be able to create. I know history would say that you know, you can’t create until you’ve suffered, or you’ve become addicted to drugs, and that’s absolute nonsense. Most creativity is found by actually doing work, to be in the space where you can keep doing work. Being happy where you live and happy who you spend your time with is massive.
ON GETTING TO KNOW MELBOURNE
I think it’s great to just jump on a tram, jump on a train, jump on as many of those as you can. Getting out into the suburbs is really interesting here. Initially when I moved here I spent a lot of time in places like Footscray, in Springvale, there’s a big Vietnamese and Chinese community there, and I spent a lot of time in Oakleigh. These are suburbs you’re not going to read too much about in any tour books especially not in 2002, and I just found that they revealed a different way of life and a different look at the city than the more glamorised aspects of St Kilda at the time, the CBD or South Yarra, which are all great places but just don’t display the full diversity of the town. It’s a pretty big place Melbourne and I think really giving yourself time to explore it is really valuable.
ON A FEW GOOD CORNERS OF MELBOURNE
I think going to NGV is always something that I recommend to anybody that comes here, going to galleries, going to one of the many live music venues that we have here, I love going to The Corner to see bands, I love going to the Tote, those are things that I’ve always done. We’re obviously known for laneways and street art as well and those are great things to check out. You can find something really cool in every part of this place, every neighbourhood has something special and you’ve got to be open to it.
ON GOOD COFFEE
Market Lane in Prahran Market is number one in my books.
ON GETTING OUT OF TOWN
At the moment Mt Buller, it’s super relaxing going snowboarding up there. I love travelling the country with my partner Kylie and we’ve had some great trips to places like Benalla which is a small town in country Victoria that has a great art scene.
ON WHERE YOUR NEXT FLIGHT IS TAKING YOU
ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE
Window seat, yeah I like the window.
food and drink
food and drink