Food & Culture

How Ben Shewry's near-death experience inspired an Attica dish

For the Melbourne chef, when you've nearly drowned three times in your life, you plate the experience.

By Lee Tran Lam
Ben Shewry
Ben Shewry grew up in an incredibly remote part of New Zealand: there were only seven students in his school – and two were his sisters. Nearby was the rugged and dangerous Whareorino coastline.
"A lot of people have drowned there – a lot, given that there's nobody there," says Shewry, chef and owner of Attica in Melbourne. Shewry nearly died there himself, aged 10, and the memory is still sharp more than 30 years later.
He was standing on a reef, gathering seafood. His family was a few hundred metres away.
"I had my back to the sea when I was collecting mussels, which is foolish," he says. "A large set of waves came in. The first one hit me without me realising and it dragged me across the reef."
His back was shredded as the wave pulled him across the sea floor, and those scars are still there, decades later. "I came up in the whitewash, then the second wave hit me and held me down, then the third wave held me down – I was drowning. My lungs were filling with water and I thought that was it."
His father Rob realised what had happened and swam out to save him. Shewry remembers his family rushing him into a nearby beach shack. "They were trying to clean the sand and gravel out of my back and it was so incredibly painful that I nearly passed out in the shower," he says. Under his feet, he watched as the white floor changed colour. "It was red with my blood."
Some chefs use seafood dishes to present a romantic spin on the ocean, but when salt water slams into you and holds you down, when you've nearly drowned three times in your life, you plate a near-death experience instead. That's what Shewry did with Sea Tastes, which was on Attica's menu in 2007, early in the restaurant's history. "I didn't feel a connection to the country here yet," he says. "Sea Tastes was one of the first dishes I conceived using personal experiences of a place."
Sea Tastes (Photo: Colin Page)
The dish wasn't just about almost drowning, but survival. For a family without much money, the sea was a lifeline. "One of the ways to feed yourself was to go up the coast," says Shewry. He'd find sea urchins in rockpools, carefully smash them without spiking himself, then devour the lobes. He found sustenance in seaweed and mussels, too. "This was a story as old as time itself on both sides of the coast," he says, given indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia harvested shellfish to feed themselves.
This all shaped Sea Tastes. The dish featured mussels and clams steamed in seawater, their juices used to flavour a clam custard that formed the base of the dish. Shewry then added prawn jelly, seaweed powder and "god forbid", he says, sea-urchin foam. (He cringes at the dish now and refused to serve it on his Chef's Table episode in 2015.) Native plants from Port Phillip Bay were garnishes: pigface, grey saltbush, sea lettuce. The dish connects to his beachcombing past, and reflects his efforts to use native ingredients.
"We have the world's oldest continued civilisation here, why would we not be interested in those things?" Sea Tastes marked a turning point for Shewry, when the chef's singular vision for Attica took form after some false starts. It was a strong statement: a mouthful that tasted like a battle with the shore.
Today, when he heads out to surf, Shewry remains in awe of the sea's power. "I'm just a tiny, tiny speck on the ocean," he says. "I'm just trying not to drown."