Q&A with Ben Shewry: the trailblazing chef of Melbourne’s Attica on telling stories through food

Q&A with Ben Shewry: the trailblazing chef of Melbourne’s Attica on telling stories through food

Ben Shewry, executive chef of Melbourne’s Attica (one of Australia’s top restaurants and number 53 on the S. Pellegrino best restaurant’s list), will be in Toronto next week to speak at Terroir, the annual hospitality industry symposium. One of the world’s most innovative chefs, Shewry draws from his varied experiences and childhood memories of New Zealand to build a menu that uses distinctive, eclectic ingredients in a country that doesn’t have a strong culinary heritage. Sherwy is also no stranger to Canada—the chef has travelled throughout the country and has a grandmother from Peterborough. We recently spoke with The Age Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year 2011 about the stories he tries to tell through his cuisine.

You’re known for sustainable cooking. How does terroir play into your cuisine?

What I’m really interested in is bringing in older ingredients from indigenous people. I think the last few years I’ve looked more closely at what Australia is, and it has inspired me more than in the past. There’s incredible produce that isn’t available anywhere else, like this rare dessert fruit that has a eucalyptus-menthol flavour. The first time I had it, I couldn’t believe it. Things like that all have unique characteristics that people of Australia don’t know it very well, but it’s fun and we’re trying to work with others to try to educate. We have some incredible people who devote their lives to finding edible wild plants and fruits. Many come walking off the street because they know we’re interested—like a neighbour of a farmer or his cousin. It’s a network of people who have this as a hobby and we work with them.

Were there any new discoveries?

When I first put some of [the foraged goods] on the menu, I didn’t know what the plants were, but they were used by indigenous populations. I’d made up names and used them at Attica until I knew what their real names were. Five years later, that name that I called it, it’s being used all over Australia.

Is there anything about Canada that you’re excited about for when you visit?

Canada is my favourite country in the world outside of New Zealand. I lived there for six months, mostly in Surrey, B.C. I did travel around through B.C., spent some time in Calgary, a little bit of time in Toronto. But I also had a Canadian grandmother, so I’ve always felt at home there. The last time I was there I spent time on a farm and sugar shack—I found it really inspiring to see how maple syrup was made. I’m actually a little addicted to maple syrup. A lot of young chefs from Canada come out to work at Attica.

Your menus—with items like “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown—seem to hint at an underlying story. What is it that you’re trying to convey through your plates?

For me, storytelling is one of those traditions that is in danger of being lost. Initially, I wrote my own stories down through the dishes I sent out, but I didn’t share the explanations with other people. I guess I felt a little self conscious about it and I’d share them with a few friends and dining room customers. I don’t like preaching, but it was like I was getting it off my chest, I suppose.

Many chefs look to you as a source of culinary inspiration. What were yours?

I try to think of things that represent my country. I wanted to have my own style and not try to copy some other style. I’d rather be doing something that wasn’t in the spotlight but made me really happy—like cooking classics but doing it really well, and if that made me happy, that would be good enough. The most important thing is to find a mentor or someone of significant influence who can guide you in the technical aspects and who can offer advice, because being a cook is hard—the long hours, often many years of hard work. I’m inspired by others around the world as well. Last year I was at René Redzepi’s MAD Symposium. That was one of the most inspiring things in recent memory.

Terroir VI, Arcadian Court, 401 Bay St.,  9th Floor. April 23, 7 a.m–6 p.m. terroirsymposium.com