Ben Shewry describes his approach to cooking as a “bastard child of a lot of different, strange influences”. He arrived in Melbourne in 2002 from New Zealand with a CV comprising stints in hotel kitchens, tiny family bistros and nightclubs. He was a young chef trained wholly in European cooking with an obsession for Thai food. He thinks that if someone with this same mongrel CV were to walk into his kitchen looking for a job today he might not even consider it. But he also knows you have to start somewhere.
Melbourne was vital, integral to the story. It enabled him to work with chefs like Andrew McConnell and observe the long-running success of restaurants like Flower Drum, France-Soir and Cafe Di Stasio. But equally important was the support of Melbourne diners after he landed his first head chef gig at Attica in 2005.
It wasn’t a sure thing. Some nights he cooked for two people. But then word leaked and Attica became busier. Ben believes the food wasn’t always right, that sometimes it was too left of centre, but people kept coming because they saw something in it. They believed in what he was doing and it gave him the strength and confidence to keep doing it, even when there were plenty of opportunities (and advice) for him to cut his losses. He feels great loyalty to Melbourne. It gave him the space to be and do what he wanted and is why he calls it home.
The focus and drive that have allowed Attica’s success he attributes to his mother. Ben grew up on a remote sheep and cattle farm in Taranaki, a mountainous coastal region on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. His father was artistic, able to sculpt and draw with ease, able to make things out of nothing. His mother was a schoolteacher with a passionate interest in human rights and Maori culture. They both worked hard to make a living from the farm, forgoing some of their passions along the way.
Ben reflects both their influences and believes his mother’s insistence on him understanding the indigenous culture of New Zealand as a child has influenced his decision to learn more about the culture and food traditions of indigenous Australians.
Ben believes that one of the strengths of Australia’s food culture is the willingness to embrace the food of the people who have migrated here. What puzzles him is how little knowledge there is of the food of the people who’d been here for thousands of years before European settlement. He’s not interested in tokenism. He believes in talking to aboriginal Australians not just about how to use indigenous ingredients but about the culture behind the ingredients, to put that food into the same sort of cultural context we expect for Thai or Italian or Greek cuisine. He’s not trying to claim the culture, he’s aim is to increasingly understand and respect it. The dinner table, he believes, is a great place for a conversation about reconciliation. We all have to eat.
Ben sees Attica as a creative small enterprise, part of Melbourne but also separate to it. He loves the independence that comes from fully owning the restaurant he cooks for. He wants to be humble about Attica, treat the people who work, supply and dine there well but still be able to resist people telling him what he should be doing.
His attitude towards his restaurant, he says, is informed by one of his favourite bands, the cult American punk band Fugazi. Fugazi were fully, deliberately independent, doing it everything for themselves and saying fuck you to the establishment. At the same time taking care of their fans was central to everything they did. Ben likes that hardcore mentality being paired with the desire not to screw people. It’s what underpins the way he lives his life and the way he runs his restaurant. That “bastard child of a lot of different strange influences” is what makes sense to him.