Kiwi chef conquering cuisine
"It's like he doesn't want to be famous," the PR person whispers to me, her jaw slack, incredulous. She's talking about Ben Shewry.
He's one of the globe's 'starting 10' chefs (industry-folk say he's the one other top chefs have culinary crushes on), yet he seems to have a self-reflexive need to downplay his achievements.
This confuses those who count success by television appearances, brand endorsements and column inches. But I realise early in my interview with this super-down-to-earth man that his hunger for perfection but distaste for pomp is him just being Kiwi.
Born and raised on a farm in North Taranaki, Shewry's small, 50-seater Melbourne restaurant Attica was 21st on San Pellegrino's prestigious 50 Best Restaurants list this year (the highest Antipodean ranking).
It was named Restaurant Of The Year and he Chef Of The Year in The Age Good Food Guide 2014.
TV fans will also recognise him as the chef chosen to present the hellish last challenge in the MasterChef Australia finale this year.
In fact, Attica's so laden with accolades you need to reserve a table three months in advance. Shewry tells me he's just upset he now can't personally answer all emails he receives.
"I wanted to become a chef when I was five," he explains in a Kiwi drawl with a touch of Aussie vowel.
"When I was 10, I wrote to a heap of restaurants in town [New Plymouth], and told them I wanted to be a chef. One wrote back: The Mill..."
After a stint of work experience at The Mill, and weekend jobs at a Woolworths bakery and a classic Kiwi cafe, Shewry, 16, went to Waikato Polytech to hone his skills. While there he worked at Hamilton's Outback Inn.
"Its main claim to fame was that it made the largest nachos in New Zealand," Shewry recalls.
Then, after a quick whirl around North America, he and his now wife Natalia settled in Wellington for five years.
"I worked at Shed Five in its heyday. There was a super-expensive whitebait dish that used to sell 50 portions for lunch. Then I worked at the Roxburgh Bistro; that was a pivotal point, working for Mark Limacher, who became my mentor and is probably the most influential person in my culinary life."
Shewry credits Wellington stalwart Limacher (formerly of the Roxburgh and Café Bastille and now of Ortega Fish Shack) for helping him "see through the rubbish".
The leek garnish was the food trend of that time: "You used to julienne leeks and deep-fry them and it tasted like nothing. That, the sprig of thyme or the awful tomato rose, Mark wasn't into. He knew what was up and he taught me."
Shewry's been in Australia for 11 years and took over Attica in Melbourne's quiet but affluent Ripponlea eight years ago.
While he kept the Greek-inspired name, he first served food that was a cross between Thai and French, but quickly realised he "wasn't very inspired by Europe" and had to go back to his roots.
It was after he looked back to the King Country bush and Taranaki's coastlines for inspiration to dream up proudly Antipodean cuisine that his work became unique.
"People who forget where they came from have lost their way," he says.
The food he and his team of about 12 chefs create at Attica is simple but also evocative, with a constant current of Shewry's homeland - from the hangi potato (five hours' cooking in the earth it was grown in) to the honey finale and the chocolate 'Pukeko' eggs.
A piece of cucumber is art thanks to chardonnay vinegar, corn becomes a béarnaise concoction through fermentation and a freshly-shucked mussel is made memorable because of a precise 35-second cooking time and the fact it comes served next to a shell with a portrait of the mussel farmer, Lance Wiffen, painted on it.
"Simple's a tricky word," Shewry explains.
"The less you put on a plate the harder it is; the better your technique has to be, the better your product and the more skillful your cooks. A lot of people can't cook like that because they don't have time to source the ingredients they need."
The dad of three, who lives a two-hour drive from Melbourne on the Bellarine Peninsula and usuallyworks a 15-hour day, makes the time.
"There are more than 200 unique suppliers for the kitchen. We grow 70 varieties of plants for the restaurant ourselves and forage throughout the seasons for about another 80."
Foraging is a 'trend', but for Shewry, going bush to find food is not tokenistic.
"Mum and Dad had a 2000-acre dry-stock sheep and cattle farm in Awakino. It was very steep country - pretty hard graft - and my mother had a big vege garden and grew a lot of the produce we ate.
My father would shoot a wild pig and we'd live off kina, mussels, crayfish and pipi from the coast. It was before people thought of it as a trendy thing to do. It wasn't novel, it was a part of everyday life.
"We even catered our wedding that way - my uncle shot a deer, we had abalone, my other uncle brought a lamb and the whole family cooked. It was one of the best meals ever."
Shewry says he'll "never stop" tasting weeds and leaves, despite once posoning himself.
"I ate a bright flower that was aromatic and mildly delicious and I felt fine but about half an hour later I didn't and called my wife and said, 'Oh, look, I'm in a spot of bother and if you don't hear back from me in the next 10 minutes then call the ambulance. This is where I am. I've pulled over because I'm having trouble breathing and my throat's closed over a little bit. I'm just going to have to sit it out and try and calm down and hopefully I'll be alright,' and I was."
He recounts the story in a matter-of-fact, understated manner - that distinctly Kiwi blend of humility and intensity; an attitude he credits for his success.
"It takes a long time for us Kiwis to be able to say, 'I think I'm quite good at that,'" he explains.
"For me it's still kind of a struggle. But that's a really strong part of our culture and I think it's something that's helped me because you always feel a bit like the underdog. You're always striving, but you're never talking about it.
"You never say, 'Oh, I'm going to be the best.' If you say that in rural North Taranaki you're going to get slapped down."
QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS ...
Will you ever open a restaurant in NZ? It's a possibility. I don't have the energy for another venture now but I always feel more connected to the scenery there.
What produce do you miss from NZ? Kumara taste completely different in NZ than they do here - they lack the texture, the depth of flavor and the earthiness.
Fave NZ produce? The honey.
What do you cook for your kids? I like to get them involved in cooking pizza from scratch. We have a little pizza over and they make the dough and we pick herbs from the garden.
What's your get psyched for cooking music? Early Metallica
Pavlova - NZ or OZ? NZ. Even if somebody proved it was Australia I wouldn't have it in me to believe them.
Fave dirty NZ snack food? Pinky bar.
Fave NZ chef? Mark Limacher and Michael Meredith
Fave international chef? David Thompson
Top place to eat in NZ? I've had some great meals at the KC Café in Wellington.
Fave pie flavour? Steak & cheese
Top movie? I like documentaries: I watched King Of Kong recently. It's a weird film about two guys who are great rivals at playing Donkey Kong.
Top band? Phoenix Foundation
Desert island ingredient? Maybe a coconut because you can drink the water, eat the flesh and use the husk to make an ash to flavour things.
Fave of your dishes? Whatever the new one I'm working one is, right now that's called 'Raw strawberry jam'. It's literal.
If you weren't a chef you'd be? A writer or a carpenter.
Sunday Star Times