Fruit of his flavour
It's hard to imagine it now. Celebrated chef Ben Shewry on the brink of throwing in cooking, struggling to get off the couch, emotionally distant and cold to his wife and their three young children. Possibly New Zealand's most successful expat chef today, and one of our greatest overseas ambassadors, Melbourne-based Shewry remembers those dark days as a desperately difficult time in his life. It was just three years ago when the black cloud of depression swamped him.
Today, everyone wants to know the 38-year-old with a mop of dark hair, who loves surfing in the waves that curl on the shore near his home in Ocean Grove, on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula. His restaurant, Attica, in a nondescript Melbourne suburb, is Australasia's best, appearing on the prestigious World's 50 Best Restaurants list - sponsored by S Pellegrino and Acqua Panna - at number 32.
"A deep connection to nature characterises Ben Shewry's unusual food," the judges wrote, declaring his cucumbers, holy flax, sauce of burnet as Attica's standout dish.
Basking in that glory, diners wait for three months to get a seat at Attica, paying A$190 (NZ$205) for the privilege of eating its degustation menu. But Shewry has battled his demons to get there.
"Up until I suffered from depression three or four years ago, I never felt like I had an unhappy day in my life," he recalls. "Then I was hating cooking at the time, and I was thinking of throwing it away. It was a gradual process and I didn't realise what was wrong with me and that I was really down. It was like a fog that came from nowhere and consumed me. At the end of working for five years, at 80 to 100 hours a week . . . I was completely run-down and I had difficult staff in the kitchen and I had a breakdown with my restaurant partner. Things were financially very hard, the restaurant was broke, and I was carrying the world on my shoulders."
He's still not rolling in it today, despite the queues to eat his snow crab and sour leaves, or salted red kangaroo and bunya bunya at Attica, which he co-owns with David Maccora. While there's an impression that running a top restaurant makes a chef wealthy, that's not the case.
Almost daily, Shewry gets approached by corporates keen to get him to endorse something. His culinary celebrity status makes him in demand to cook and speak at international food fests such as the MAD Foodcamp of Rene Redzepi (whose Danish restaurant, Nomi, is top of the the world's best list), Spain's Madrid Fusion and at France-based food writer and restaurant judge Andrea Petrini's Cook It Raw eco-food fests. But he's turned down offers to judge Australian MasterChef and go on other cooking shows.
Unlike many celebrity chefs, this one isn't a self-promoter. He's humble and self-effacing. Nor is he focused on making a buck.
"I do things that are fun, and things that are based around money are not much fun."
If you do manage to get a table at Attica, Shewry is likely to be putting your meal together in the kitchen. He's a chef who needs to cook every day, and he'll either be prepping the dinner, or cooking, possibly both. "The whole thing of being a cook to me is being able to do the cooking. I'm a grass-roots person who delivers new dishes with my staff - 30 young people who are incredibly talented, who need motivating too."
He's also strongly principled. Everything on his menu is carefully thought through, and all the herbs, fruit and vegetables are harvested from the restaurant kitchen garden inside the historic Ripponlea Estate. There, Shewry and his chefs are the gardeners, tending the land and the 95 different plants grown there.
"The garden is a big part of the way we cook. We're forced to be creative in the kitchen in relation to what's ready in the garden. We use everything in that, and we don't waste anything either."
In pride of place at his restaurant now is a 3-metre Korean-built composting machine that takes all the food scraps and every item of waste - right down to old menus and till receipts - and munches them up into compost, which Shewry and his team scatter over the garden a week later. "Those scraps are the lifeblood of the garden. We've also reduced our landfill by half. Our rubbish has no smell now too, and smell is an issue for restaurants. It's revolutionised the way we work."
One of the points of difference Shewry has is his belief that food can have a deeper meaning than just being something to consume - it can be evocative, emotional and thought-provoking, appealing to all the senses. Every dish tells a story.
He's also influenced by the volcano, rivers, ocean and land of rural Taranaki, where he grew up on a 1000-hectare family farm with parents Kaye and Rob, and sisters Tami and Tess.
The World's 50 Best Restaurant judges wrote of him: "His cuisine remains uniquely imaginative and original, with dishes often referencing the landscape and memories of his childhood on the wild west coast of NZ's North Island. King George whiting, topped with meat-infused butter, is cooked in smoking paper bark; potato is cooked "in the earth in which it is grown"; snow crab comes with 12 flavours of St Joseph's Wort (aka sweet basil)."
The Shewrys had little money but "my parents' knowledge of the land meant food was plentiful", he says. "We raised sheep and cattle and Dad hunted for pigs. We foraged for edible plants, and we fished and whitebaited and dived for shellfish.
"Once I tramped for two hours with my sister to an old logger's hut from the 1930s or 1940s, maintained by my father as a place to stay in an emergency. I was 8 and she was 6. We made our own dinner and stayed overnight.
"My parents were very giving of their time to their children. They also instilled this belief in me that you can do anything you want, and I now try to instil that in my children. I'm also a good example of someone who has come from an isolated, back-country place and I've followed my dreams, and now I'm being rewarded for that."
That is, he says, a Kiwi thing too, and he believes that the Kiwi can-do attitude has got him to where he is today. "Innovation is a birthright. We're born with a chip on our shoulders, but that's not a bad thing. The whole thing about being a small country on the bottom of the world is kind of cool. It forces you to look after yourself. I lived there till I was 25, and so it's been significant, and you really think
that anything's possible. Growing up in the back country, there were no excuses. That's one of the strongest traits I've got from growing up there."
Shewry is on the telephone from Paris. He's on a three-week trip to France to cook and share his culinary skills. Wife Natalia has recently joined him, along with their three children, 9-year-old Kobe, 7-year-old Ella and 4-year-old Ruby.
Family is so important to the 38-year-old today. On his Facebook page, the main picture shows him and Kobe on the beach near their home; another post shows Ella's hands proudly holding onions she grew and harvested. "Don't miss the gift to pass on a little food knowledge to your children. I'm still grateful to my parents for the exchange as a child," he writes.
One of the highlights of his week, too, is coaching a charity basketball team, Helping Hoops, which runs free basketball lessons for more than 1000 disadvantaged and disabled kids in Melbourne. He also coaches Kobe's basketball team. Becoming a dad gave him a greater sense of being part of a community, changing him as a person.
It took those dark days and tough times, too - when he managed to wrench himself out of the fog without any help, and when he learned to spread the workload among his kitchen staff - to help him appreciate the basics again.
His epiphany came when a friend died. "It was the realisation that life is short, and I needed to get myself out of the hole I was in."
Attica's fortunes began to improve in 2010, when it first began getting noticed in restaurant awards, making it into the top 100 of world's best restaurants list in 2011. The crowds started coming in, and he made changes.
"I started relinquishing control at work and the whole thing flourished. Everything flourished, including my family. I had been a dad who had been away a lot, and when I was actually there, I wasn't present, and so I felt a sense of guilt about that. I realised, when I came back to the other side, that that was a shitty time, and I never want to get back there again."
"Looking in from the outside, my life and career might seem glossy, but it's a hard road trying to achieve the things that you want to. We nearly lost the business a few times. Only in the last three or four years has it been sustainable financially. As most restaurants will tell you, it can be tough."
His industry is a male-dominated one, and topics such as work stress and depression are difficult to talk about. Shewry's tone rises, and he really wants to make a point here. Cooks and restaurateurs are under such pressure all the time, "and the public need to know that. To put stuff on a plate at a particular level is a damn big job. The culture of the celebrity chef makes it all looks so easy, but it's incredibly long, hard work."
Shewry had no idea that being a chef would be such hard work as he banged pots and pans in his childhood kitchen, influenced by his grandmother, who loved to cook. After vowing to be a chef at the age of 5, at the age of 10 he wrote to restaurants in New Plymouth, telling them of his dreams. After training at Waikato Polytech, he worked in New Plymouth as a junior cook at the Auto Lodge, then at the Plymouth Hotel. He then spent five years in Wellington, cooking at Government House for governors-general Sir Michael Hardie Boys and Dame Silvia Cartwright. He has said that he worked with some "angry French chefs" in New Zealand.
But then he spent two years working with Mark Limacher, at Wellington's Roxburgh Bistro, where he says he first learned about a positive kitchen environment and a nurturing work culture. "Mark created a great atmosphere and he really is a role model for young cooks."
Limacher is one of Shewry's fans and they're friends. Co-owner of Ortega Fish Shack in Wellington, the restaurateur went across several times to Melbourne to mentor the younger chef when Shewry set up Attica.
Limacher, a chef with 40-plus years of experience, whose three consecutive restaurants on Majoribanks St have won gongs, knew that Shewry was going to be special when the young chef first went to work for him: "He was always mulling over things and he asked a lot of questions. I saw his potential."
When Limacher went over to see Shewry, he laughs that he spent half his time "scouring Ben's neighbourhood for weird and wonderful things that people probably ate once to survive but now wouldn't touch".
And when he dined at Attica several times, he says he ate incredibly personal food - combinations unlike anything you've seen before. "You get the two or three star Michelin ‘London cooking' all the time and it's always the same thing, but that's not what he does. You're always wowed and surprised when you eat his dishes.
"He's into the environment and a flag-bearer for all those things. He's very clever and cerebral."
Limacher also helped Shewry when he went through his difficult times. "I remember he had one customer who commented on his first menu and said that whoever wrote it must be on some kind of drug.
"His restaurant is also in this place in Melbourne which has no glam factor. It's like driving from town and going to Hataitai for dinner. It's a humble little spot."
Added to the fact that cooking can be stressful, Limacher says, Shewry is under incredible pressure. "For Ben, someone will come along and expect the best meal of their lives if they've come halfway around the world and booked months in advance to get into his restaurant. When you're cooking for people at that level, they're very demanding."
Rating Shewry as New Zealand's top chef, Limacher says the fact he is so humble and unassuming makes everyone love him too. "We lose a lot of our good chefs overseas, but he's a fantastic ambassador for New Zealand and for New Zealand chefs."
It hasn't always been the way, but perhaps part of the reason that Attica continues to win awards and soar up the restaurant ranks is right down to the love that is served on every plate.
"Attica," says Shewry, "is a negative-free zone. We focus on the positives and every day we look for new ways to articulate a new vision. Every day, we have 50 to 55 new customers who are excited to be coming to Attica and our job is to serve them and to make something special.
"I never anticipated that Attica would be successful and known all around the world. The awards mean less to me than doing a good job and finding satisfaction in what I do everyday. "
■ Apart from cooking, my passions are my family, music, surfing and coaching junior basketball.
■ In my downtime I like to play horse with my kids on our backyard basketball court, collect hi-fi gear and listen to great records.
■ The produce I can't live without is anything local, grown or produced with integrity that has great flavour.
■ Attica was named Best Restaurant in Australasia in the 2014 World's 50 Best Restaurants list. It was ranked 32nd.
■ Ben Shewry was named Victoria's top chef in the 2014 The Age Good Food Guide. Attica got three hats in the guide and was also named restaurant of the year.
■ Last year, Shewry received the Australian Gourmet Traveller Chef of the Year Award.
OTHER KIWIS COOKING UP A STORM ACROSS THE DITCH
■ Chef Dave Verheul and restaurateur Christian McCabe run The Town Mouse in Melbourne. Verheul has worked under Martin Bosley and went on to cook with big timers, including high-profile chef Marcus Wareing in London. He and McCabe were at the helm of Wellington's Matterhorn before heading for Australia.
■ Auckland's Daniel Wilson was just 12 when he decided a cook's life was for him. Among those he learned the trade from was Daniel Boulud in New York. Wilson is now based in Melbourne where he is head chef and owner of his own restaurant, Huxtable, nominated for Best New Restaurant in the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide.
■ Jared Ingersoll, an Upper Hutt boy, earned his cooking stripes in Wellington at places such as Brasserie Flipp before moving to Sydney in 1995. Having worked under some of the best chefs in the world, he went on to run Sydney restaurant Danks Street Depot in Waterloo for 11 years. He is now a consultant redesigning menus, does guest chef appearances and is focusing on writing.
■ New-Zealand born, Queensland-based Philip Johnson honed his skills back home and later in London before settling in Brisbane. He opened E'cco Bistro in 1995 and just two years later won the Remy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award. He has penned several cookbooks.