Head chef, Attica
Born in: Waitotara, South Taranaki, New Zealand
Friends: Rene Redzepi
Home Town: Melbourne
"I dreamed this dream that was the most intense dream of bees and beehives," recalls internationally renowned chef Ben Shewry, when The Power Index quizzes him on where he finds inspiration for his delicately balanced dishes that resemble mini art works.
After yawning down the highway from his home in Ocean Grove to his restaurant Attica in Ripponlea, Melbourne, Shewry pulled over for a power nap. "I remember waking up, really abruptly, with this notion in my head that I must create a dessert inside a beehive," says Shewry. "We attempted this dish at least 80 different ways and I gave up on it."
But as The Power Index discovered in its chat with Shewry at his unassuming restaurant on a suburban strip, this obsessive overachiever doesn't give up on anything. His restaurant Attica -- he's a partner along with David and Helen Maccora, but has complete creative control -- is ranked 63 in the prestigious San Pellegrino World's Best 100 Restaurants. That makes Attica the third ranked Australian restaurant, after Peter Gilmore’s Quay and Mark Best’s Marque.
So why is Shewry on this list and not them? "Out of all the top guys, Ben is probably the best connected internationally and has certainly been asked to participate in more international events than anybody else," says Sharlee Gibb, gastronomy program manager at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Shewry was the first Victorian to ever speak at Spain's highly acclaimed Madrid Fusion and the first Australian to present at Copenhagen’s MAD FoodCamp and France's Omnivore food festival.
His international cred makes him worthy of a power ranking, even if he's not a household name. He's no celebrity TV chef, but Aussies should expect to start hearing more about him. "Ben Shewry is so much a part of the brotherhood -- the ‘Chosen Ones’ I call them -- he has the power to be more influential in the future," food writer Jill Dupleix tells The Power Index.
The "Chosen Ones" are the chef darlings who dominate the international food media with their dishes created from sustainable and local produce, often foraged. Denmark is their spiritual home and Rene Redzepi -- whose restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is ranked number one in the world -- their cult leader. Think of Shewry as our local disciple.
Dinner at Attica currently includes onions foraged from the nearby train line, a plethora of herbs grown in its Ripponlea Estate kitchen garden, wallaby and a plate of native Australian fruits The Power Index had never heard of (among them quandong, desert lime and lemon aspen).
Close mate Redzepi even nominated Shewry as a potential challenger to his top spot during his Melbourne visit last year. "He embarrassed me. He humbled me when he said that,” says Shewry.
The Kiwi-born chef uses the word ‘humble’ often, which encapsulates his whole demeanor. He looks younger than his 35 years, but his thoughtful answers and big serious eyes make him seem older.
Shewry grew up as the son of a sheep and cattle farmer in an isolated, backwater place on New Zealand's north island. It was so remote that only seven kids attended his local primary school in Waitotara, with his sister making up two of the students and his mother serving as principal and sole teacher.
The Shewry family didn’t have much cash, but their knowledge of the land meant food was plentiful.
"We always had cattle, we always had sheep, my father hunted for a lot of pigs, we foraged for berries, for edible plants, we dived for a massive array of shellfish and my mother had a really big vegetable garden and provided all sorts of things," he explains.
When he was five years old Shewry decided to become a chef. At the age of 10 he wrote letters to five restaurants in the big smoke -- New Plymouth, population then 40,000 -- begging to do work experience. Incredibly, one agreed and allowed him in the kitchen using knives and making lasagne.
"It really lit the fire," says Shewry. "I walked into this kitchen and these guys were like a pirate crew. They weren’t the owners of the restaurant, but they were the owners of their little universe and they had control over the things that they did. They could dress the way they wanted, whether that was a bandanna, or chilli peppers down the leg of their pants or a cigarette in their mouth like Marco Pierre White."
Shewry nominates "the freedom to do what I want to do with my work" as the most important thing to him. Part of that freedom means taking over the empty shop next to Attica to build a test kitchen. “It won’t bring in a cent more,” admits Shewry. "But we think it’ll make us be able to make a better restaurant."
That pursuit of excellence kept Shewry coming back to his beehive dessert dream. He included it in his book Origin -- due out in November -- and the photographer and design crew were waiting to capture it. "Five minutes before the shoot, I still didn't know how the dish was going to be," says Shewry. "And then it came to me like a flash, like a lightning strike inside my brain. And it was there and it was so perfect. It wasn't perfection, but it was a perfect moment."
That lightning strike told Shewry to get a pumpkin, slice it thinly on a meat slicer, cook it in honey until tender, cover it with freeze dried apple until white and use a hexagon stamp to create a honeycomb pattern.
Reader, we ate it. Shewry hadn't warned us of the wild thyme honey custard, lemon thyme meringue, fennel sorbet and mandarin pieces -- all enclosed in a handmade wooden beehive box -- that lie underneath the pumpkin. The black walls and curtains of the restaurant resembled a stage, with overhead spotlights placing the food in the starring role. This dish felt like the curtain call.
"That is the moment in cooking that you live for," says Shewry. "That's why you spend hours and hours away from your family and you see your staff more than your children. It's that feeling of creating something which gives you a sense of achievement. And we shot it seconds later and the photo was really great. I mean it was not perfect, but it was really great."