Ben Shewry: A new zeal for foraging

Kiwi chef and restaurateur Ben Shewry is a firm believer in going back to your roots to produce authentic food, as Maida Pineda discovered

When chef David Chang of Momofuku tweeted that Ben Shewry’s potato-in-earth dish was one of the best things he had eaten in 2012, my curiosity was piqued. But the high praise doesn’t end there. René Redzepi was quoted in Bon Appétit magazine saying, “Ben is one of those rare breed of chefs who cooks out of an inner desire to express himself.” With such glowing compliments from these two top chefs, I was eager to meet Shewry. Standing before a full house of leading restaurateurs and media from all over the world, Shewry spoke on ‘Foraging and the Importance of Biodiversity’ at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Forum in Singapore.

“G’day.” Casually dressed in burgundy trousers and a black shirt, Shewry begins his talk by introducing himself, “I’m a New Zealander, with a strong Australian accent. I was born and raised on the west coast of New Zealand, in the North Island in a place called Taranaki. I have a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia called Attica. It is a small, humble, modest place.”

Attica was named number 21 in the World’s Best Restaurants in 2013, making it the highest new entry in last year’s list. It was also recently named Restaurant of the Year in The Age Good Food Guide 2014 in Australia, with the same publication naming Shewry as Chef of the Year.

Shewry is not done introducing himself. He selects 50 of 4,500 photos from his iPhone to tell his life story. He begins with a photo of sprawling farmland. “This is my family land. This is where I grew up in the first 14 years of my life,” he says. “This is where I gained my philosophy about the environment and food. I had a mother and father who loved me very much. I had everything that I could want emotionally as a child. We had no money, but we had a great family spirit. We had food. My father would slaughter animals in front of us. He would shoot a cow with a rifle. He would skin and gut the cow in front of us. And I remember the smell of that very well. It was an early awakening to the realities of farm food, and how food was produced. This land also had many wild plants on it, and different kinds of shellfish from the coast. We relied on those things to sustain us.” On top of that, his mother had her own vegetable garden. “We were self-sufficient long before it became trendy.”

A life’s journey

To say he grew up in a small remote community is an under-statement. Shewry’s mother was the schoolteacher at a school of nine children, including Ben and his two sisters. He flashes the photo of the simple kitchen where his mother cooked. “It’s pretty rough. I learned things such as how to make béchamel sauce here at the age of eight because at the age of five I decided I wanted to become a chef,” he says. “I don’t know how you come to that conclusion when you live in the back country of New Zealand. I don’t know how, but I did, so that’s how I set out on my life journey.”

Shewry may not have been financially rich growing up, but he had an abundance of nature and freedom. “We didn’t have a lot of toys,” he says. “Our entertainment and enjoyment came about from nature. In the bush we went exploring. From a very early age, I craved freedom. That’s a gift my parents gave me.” At the age of eight, Ben and his then six-year-old sister walked for two hours to spend the night in the bush, even making their own meal over an open fire.

Shewry left New Zealand in his late teens and moved to Australia to learn more. He recalls: “At that point in my life, I was a young chef mostly focused on technique and getting ahead. I forgot my roots a little bit and my relationship with the environment.” But this all changed when he hit 27, and had his first child with his wife, Natalia. He continues, “I was a line cook. I had good experiences working in good places in New Zealand and Melbourne. But I had not worked in anything big in the world, except when I worked with David Thompson. I came to the realisation that financially AUS$600 a week was not going to pay the rent and support my wife and a child. So I answered an ad in the paper for a head chef job in Attica.”

Attica opened eight and a half years ago, but Shewry says: “It feels like we’ve just been open for six months.” The young restaurant had a rough start, owing AUS$150,000 to their suppliers. Working over 100 hours per week was tough on Shewry. “Those months were really hard, and it’s like we were living in a tunnel,” he recalls. “Those years eventually began to catch up on me. I found myself in a funk. It’s called depression and I’m not ashamed to talk about it.” His honesty rang out loud and clear in the forum hall. “The greatest strength of a person is to admit weakness. But I don’t see it as weakness. It was an experience in life I had to live through, deal with, and overcome. What it taught me is that I have to live every day as if it were my last. Because it could very well be and I had to find fun and excitement in every day. It taught me to take a look at my life through the eyes of my children, and how my behaviour affects them and my wife.

“Now I try to base my life around being authentic. It means being born a free individual, like my father, my uncles, my mother and most of the community that I grew up in. For me, being authentic involves the truthfulness of simple things: my origins, my historical roots, and also the origins of my

inspirations for what I cook, the things that influence me, and the ideas that I get.” What does sharing all this personal history have to do with his cooking? For someone who describes his cuisine as a personal cuisine, it means everything. All these factor into the food he creates every single day.

When Shewry could not find good fresh greens and ingredients for Attica, he turned to his roots. “The greens in the market were not good enough, so I began to forage. I remembered my historical connection to my mother and father. They taught us how to survive in the wild, and what to eat. In Australia, I was foraging in reaction to the market. It was not able to provide me enough fresh ingredients so I went to the wild to source them.” The father-of-three points out: “It’s important for my children to forage as well as it will give them food memories, and it will help them to choose better ingredients when they are adults, based on those memories.”

Shewry and his chefs forage the train tracks outside the restaurant, in alleyways, even on the beaches. But being a forager does not mean simply taking food. “If you are a forager of the land, in my opinion you’ve got to keep it clean as well,” says Shewry. He continues, “When I take seaweed on the beach, I take away a bag of trash as well to repay nature and to give back a little bit. I think that’s a good aspect of foraging – giving back to the planet. No one gives back, we just keep taking.”

Justice for food

But foraging only works in the winter and spring in Australia. “We have a really dry and arid climate. In the summer months, it quickly dries off. To cook in the summer is really frustrating, so we created our own garden in Attica.”

By we, Shewry is referring to himself and his chefs, “As a cook, you want your chefs to be happy. Being in a dark kitchen 12 to 15 hours a day is not that happy sometimes, so you want to them to experience things outside of their world to give their lives some meaning and enjoyment.” His first stab at growing vegetables was not for commercial purposes, he admits. “If it failed, it still would have been worth it because my guys still went outside and tilled the soil. I want life to be all right for my guys. Fortunately, it did work.”

He gushes over their harvest: 18 different kinds of basil, the deep hue of the graffiti cauliflower they grow, black broad beans, the 150 varieties of heritage apples, and five varieties of pears. Growing their own vegetables has created a deeper appreciation of the ingredients, “We try to use every part of the plant, from the broad bean to the leaves.” This deep respect for ingredients is perhaps why David Chang sings praises for his potato-in-earth dish. He does not mask it with expensive ingredients, but simply allows nature to shine. Shewry sees his role as giving justice to food. He tells me, “If it is great in the start, then it must be great or greater when you’re finished with it. Say you have an apple. It’s pretty fantastic to eat an apple just by itself, so when you make an apple dessert, you have to take into account how delicious it is in the beginning and how good it is in the end.”

But Shewry’s commitment is not just about bringing out the most delicious potential of ingredients – he strives to bring the best out of the people he works with too. Last year, he started staff presentations every day. At 3pm, he gathers the whole 27-strong restaurant team. “I speak for five minutes about things that have inspired my day. Then each day, one other member of the staff, whether they are a cook or waiter, will do the same.” A recent guest at Attica sent Shewry a letter saying thank you for making his life better on his sixth visit to the restaurant. He mentioned “an increased passion for flavour, taste, and creative sensitivity a few days after the visit”. But what the guest savoured the most was witnessing the joy of the restaurant staff: “We left last and late on our last visit. We watched two men work in the kitchen. They were really happy”.

“For me, those last four words are key to every success we’ve ever had,” Shewry says. “Those two guys had been working since 9am, but they were still happy at 1am the following morning.”

Shewry seems to have unlocked the secret for restaurateurs. “Which brings us to the conclusion that it’s not the expensive set-out that makes a restaurant great. It’s not the beautiful toilets, nor is it the beautiful view from the kitchen. God forbid, we have one of the very worst. It’s the human element and it’s found in how these humans make you feel while you are there.”

This enlightened chef emphasises the importance of creating a positive atmosphere in his restaurant long before the guests arrive. He values his staff becoming integrated. For Shewry, this means “behaviour that’s in harmony with the environment, being as kind and as generous in spirit as humanly possible, and bringing that passion to work each day with a heart.”

Feeding hungry hearts

Shewry’s mission at Attica is to provide more than just food. He says, “The longer I go into this caper, the more I realise that food is just one vehicle for making people happy. On the outside, society dictates that there will always be winners and losers. But for one night we can make them forget all about that.”

When I asked what’s next for him, another restaurant perhaps, Shewry firmly answers: “No, there’s a lot of work to be done with Attica – we just opened our test kitchen.” This is a laboratory for his cooks to better their craft – Shewry has a habit of making everything better. Be it enhancing the flavours of ingredients, integrating his restaurant staff, or simply inspiring people he encounters, Shewry leaves them all better than when he found them.

Consequently, his advice to other chefs and restaurateurs is to go boldly against the grain. “Don’t believe in your own fibre that you should cook for accolades. The unfortunate truth about a restaurant culture like that is no one will reach his true potential. Our restaurant is proof that you don’t have to be an asshole to achieve at a high level. Never forget your roots, no matter how humble they are. Because the most compelling food is when it still means something to the person creating it. There is still truth for the person creating it. Their thoughts and emotions give fruit to the experience. For me, caring for the environment, working at the highest level as a cook, and wanting to be a good person are all one and the same.”

Shewry summed up his message with this, “I’ll leave you with the words of the boss, Bruce Springsteen: ‘Everybody’s got a hungry heart’, and it’s our life’s work to feed it.”

Maida Pineda

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