Lunch with Ben Shewry

Alchemist: “The intention with everything we do… to portray it in the best way I can muster,” says chef Ben Shewry. Photo: Jesse Marlow Old school: Tuck Shop Take Away in Caulfield North has become a foodie magnet. Photo: Jesse Marlow
杭州桑拿按摩

Old school: Tuck Shop Take Away in Caulfield North has become a foodie magnet. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Flagged: The hamburger at the Tuck Shop Take Away is often a sellout item. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Alchemist: “The intention with everything we do… to portray it in the best way I can muster,” says chef Ben Shewry. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Inhouse: Chef Ben Shewry eats at the Tuck Shop once a month. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Old school: Tuck Shop Take Away in Caulfield North has become a foodie magnet. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Flagged: The hamburger at the Tuck Shop Take Away is often a sellout item. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Alchemist: “The intention with everything we do… to portray it in the best way I can muster,” says chef Ben Shewry. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Inhouse: Chef Ben Shewry eats at the Tuck Shop once a month. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Old school: Tuck Shop Take Away in Caulfield North has become a foodie magnet. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Flagged: The hamburger at the Tuck Shop Take Away is often a sellout item. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Alchemist: “The intention with everything we do… to portray it in the best way I can muster,” says chef Ben Shewry. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Inhouse: Chef Ben Shewry eats at the Tuck Shop once a month. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Tuck Shop Take Away273 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield North; 0431 406 580 Tues-Thurs, 11am-8pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-9pm

Ben Shewry is just enough of an outsider that he sees Australia quite differently to locals. New Zealand-born Shewry is chef and part owner of Attica, one of Australia’s top restaurants and one of the best in the world. “I find things exciting that maybe the rest of Australia doesn’t. When I discovered indigenous spices and fruits, it blew my mind. At that time there was little love for it.”

Shewry, who came to Australia in 2002, had few pre-conceived notions about who ate what or what was considered “appropriate” or otherwise. He argues there was a cultural cringe around some of the ingredients he was drawn to, an assumption that certain foods were for tourists or unappealing because they were native.

Like all great chefs, Shewry is something of an alchemist. He and his team are incredibly adept at bringing out the essence of the ingredients in each dish. So potatoes taste more like potatoes than ever before – or pears, or peas, or crab, or kangaroo, or whatever else is on the menu. “That’s the aim,” he says, “that’s the intention with everything we do… to portray it in the best way I can muster.”

Awarded Best Restaurant in The Age Good Food Guide 2014 and Australian Gourmet Traveller 2015, Best Restaurant in Australasia and 32nd place on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Attica is a 60-seat restaurant in an unassuming shopfront in Ripponlea. After a recent visit, renowned US food critic Ruth Reichl said “… this restaurant is set on redefining the entire relationship you have with restaurants. It is the Marcel Duchamp of restaurants, a place that demands that you do more than arrive expecting a pleasant experience, one that asks you to use your mind as well as your mouth.”

Nearly a decade ago, the planets aligned to bring together a doctor-cum-restaurateur, David Maccora, and a young chef with a big vision. “Both of us were in desperate situations,” Shewry says. “I had had my first child, Kobe, and was trying to support my wife and him on a very small income. He was a restaurateur who was struggling; he took a last chance effort on me. I had some kind of plan and I acted on it. And he backed it – didn’t question it. That was how it rolled. That was nine years ago. It’s kind of amazing.”

 

There’s been a quantum shift in Shewry’s reality since then. He’s quick to credit the people around him: “I have incredible people working for me, that’s the secret of the success. And an incredibly, incredibly supportive wife, Natalia, an absolute legend, who is responsible for the success I’ve had in many ways, really, through her support. I have a business partner, David, who is solid and … a really decent man.”

We meet for lunch at a tiny cornerstore cafe called Tuck Shop Take Away, run by former Attica front-of-house guy Clinton Serex and his wife Karina, who trained as a pastry chef at The Fat Duck. The fitout is simple, with lots of cute old-school touches, like a Peter’s ice-cream cone light and the caf-like trays on which meals are served. Clinton recommends the school meals – burgers, thrice-cooked chips on the side and a housemade milk drink (salted fantale flavour today). I opt for the beef burger with egg and bacon, Shewry for the beef burger straight up. Though he doesn’t eat out often – it’s tricky with three little kids – he eats here once a month. Everything is made inhouse; the food is terrific – as is the service.

Tuck Shop, which opened in July last year, quickly became a magnet for hungry southsiders. Lines aren’t uncommon here, and it’s not unheard of for burgers to sell out. Shewry says Melbourne is one food savvy town. “The dining public here are, in my opinion, the best in the world. They’re engaged, they’re curious, they’re daring, they’re willing to try new things, open-minded. It comes from being such a young country – in terms of European settlement. We’re a very ancient country, of course, one of the oldest in the world. We don’t acknowledge it enough, unfortunately.”

As a young chef, that lack of culinary tradition was frustrating, with Shewry feeling he had little to draw on. What it led to was him looking to his own experiences, his memories of food and taste and flavour and texture. One of his most well-known dishes, “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown in”, mirrors the flavour of the hangi, a pit cooking method used in Maori culture for thousands of years.

Like the Maori and indigenous Australians, foraging was a part of life for a young Shewry. Living on a cattle farm in Taranaki, a small town on New Zealand’s west coast, harvesting seafood and plants was part of the culture. There was nothing remarkable about it – the foods were there in abundance – and it contributed to meals, helping make ends meet. While money was tight in the Shewry household, there was love and creativity in abundance. He and his two sisters had a rich childhood. “I think about that a lot and feel so lucky to have grown up in the most loving household, with excellent parents, [who were] really grounded, great communicators… They set me up for my whole life in all those ways you don’t realise until you’re older and have kids yourself, all the things they sacrificed for you.”

That upbringing taught him the importance of not taking things for granted. “I think that’s the biggest lesson I ever learnt from my parents – this ability to focus on the things that matter and discard the things that don’t. In the last couple of years I lost a couple of friends, that puts things into a pretty sharp perspective.”

Shewry is incredulous that we don’t spend more time and energy thinking about not just the food we eat but the people responsible for producing it. “We forget what’s important,” he says. “We can’t overestimate the importance of health and that comes back to the way we eat and understanding that food is not just something that magically appears.”

“We don’t take consuming food personally enough. We put our faith in people we don’t know. Would you have your kid looked after by a stranger? Why would you put your health in someone else’s hands who you don’t know?”

For all Australians to develop a relationship with growers and farmers is his ideal. It happens at the restaurant, which has 200-odd suppliers, but he believes it’s something most of us can achieve. “There’s no reason why you can’t once a week or once fortnight go to a farmers’ market, and buy some things and get to know just a little bit about what they’re doing and how they do it.”

His eyes light up when he speaks about Lance Wiffin, a mussel farmer in St Leonards. “He cooks these mussels on the boat, takes some sea water from the bay, and steams them up really slowly. I said to him, “These are the best mussels I’ve ever had in my life, and I grew up in New Zealand, we think we’re the mussel kings of the world!”

This spring racing carnival sees an Attica pop-up as part of the Lexus pavilion. His mate Neil Perry encouraged him to get on board and will be working downstairs as well. If it seems a little incongruous, Shewry says it comes back to always looking for something new to do. He has exacting standards and continually pushes himself and his team to do better: “The highest highs in my life come from creating a new thing.”

Earlier this month, Shewry organised the inaugural WAW gathering – pronounced “war”, it stands for What A Wonderful World. It was designed to connect people in the food industry with the wider community. Some of the world’s top chefs came to the event, including David Thompson, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, as well as no shortage of local talent. It involved a day of talks which were open to the public and free, with artists and musicians and artisans sharing the stage with speakers ranging from environmentalists to natural winemakers. A fundraiser lunch as part of WAW generated $25,000 for Helping Hoops, a Melbourne-based not for profit group. All sorts of people came along and Shewry is clearly overjoyed with the response. “To have 300 people in a room feeling the same, so connected … it was through the roof. Nobody wanted to leave. For one day, we tried to … create a utopia almost.”

How to live well is a recurrent theme over the course of our lunch. “I’m sure that when I’m old, when my time’s up – hopefully at 90, at least 80 – I’ll look back on my life and the people I’ll remember with most fondness will be those who have been the kindest to me. It’s not about your legacy as such, it’s just about being kind to other people.”

Shewry reckons you can adopt that philosophy across the board. “It’s a simple motivation but I think you can apply the standards that you live your life by to your work and to everything else in it. Once you start thinking about it, it’s a simpler way to live. No matter what I do, I want to do it well, I want to do it decently. You’ve got one standard for everything you do. You just want to treat people with as much respect as possible.”


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