Hailing from remote North Taranaki on the rugged coast of New Zealand, chef Ben Shewry draws culinary inspiration from his rural upbringing. Having decided to become a chef at the tender age of 5, Shewry worked in his first kitchen at age 10, before apprenticing under esteemed chefs including Michael Lambie, Andrew McConnell and David Thompson. He went on to acquire sole ownership of Melbourne restaurant Attica in 2015, having worked there as the head chef since 2005.
Attica is ranked 33rd on the list of World's 50 Best Restaurants 2016, the only Australian restaurant to make the list. Set unassumingly in the Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, Attica has an equally unique approach to its produce and food preparation methods. Shewry relies on eclectic, foraged ingredients from the local Victorian coast to construct the restaurant’s modern Australian cuisine. With no designated signature dishes, Shewry ensures the menu is constantly adapting with the palates of his diners.
You’re no stranger to MasterChef, having appeared in season 5. Can you describe how you felt about returning to the show this season?
I feel like the show has relaxed a lot. The contestants have been chosen because they are strong home cooks, rather than just ‘personalities’ and this felt like a really good thing.
What did you enjoy most about your experience this season?
I enjoyed everything, actually. I thought the whole MasterChef team were brilliant.
How did it compare with your first time on the show in 2013?
It was much more relaxed and more self-assured. I enjoyed it a lot more than the first time.
Can you note any changes in the calibre of the contestants, or any other changes?
The calibre of contestants is a lot higher. They really cared about food and cooking and weren’t just here to become famous.
Your incredible dessert Plight of the Bees featured on the show in season 5. It’s visually spectacular; how important do you think aesthetics are in this field?
Not as important as food tasting delicious! I think aesthetics are important but overrated. Personally, if I eat something that looks visually stunning but tastes like nothing, my memory of the dish will be that it was ugly.
Your cooking career began at a very early age; what or who got you started and why?
I started cooking when I was 5 years old; that was when I decided to become a chef as well. I don’t know the reasons for that but it must have been tied up with a household that ate very well. My mother is a passionate cook and grower.
Who or what inspires you?
Australia inspires me. People are fascinating from all walks of life and the people I meet regularly inspire me, they could be from any background or from any creative discipline.
You’ve been touted as “the guy to evolve mod-Oz cuisine”; why do you think that is?
I think because I’m a migrant I’m often looking from the outside in, and what I see here has excited me in ways that maybe everyday Australians wouldn’t find exciting or wouldn’t observe. We have so much to celebrate here but we also have a tonne of things that have been overlooked since settlement. Not only our poor treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters, but the lack of interest in their culture and our unique set of Australian ingredients. It’s a very complicated subject but perhaps broader Australia could begin to acknowledge Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by getting to know a few of their traditional foods.
Do you have any advice for our contestants or any aspiring chefs out there?
Be prepared to sacrifice a bit. Don’t expect everything to come to you at once; be patient, it’s a long life and a lot of things can happen in a short space of time if you work extremely hard.
Your restaurant, Attica, is ranked 32nd on the list of World's 50 Best Restaurants 2017, won Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year in 2015 and has been hatted many times; how does it feel to be acknowledged like that?
It is lovely to be acknowledged in this way. It’s a nice moment in time when it happens but it can never be something that you work for. In fact, I believe if a person ever worked for awards they would never receive any. Our success is a result of a small, close, professional and exceptionally hard working team working towards their idea of excellence on behalf of our customers. It’s not really any more complicated than that and if people like what we do then it makes the journey worthwhile.
You’re very hands-on at Attica; why is that important to you?
It’s because we are a small, independent business and my wife Natalia and I are the sole owners. If you are an owner/operator you know why this is important. It’s a hugely personal business and my great passion. Why wouldn’t I want to spend the majority of my time doing that?
What’s your go-to dish to cook at home?
Lasagne or bolognese. Lasagne was always our family dish growing up, a special occasion dish and it holds a special place in my life. My version is not authentic or anything like that, just super satisfying and makes me really happy to eat it.