Ben Shewry exhibits refreshing characteristics for a young chef, not the least being the credit he gives his mentors for their part in a brief, yet brilliant, career: his first boss, back in New Zealand and his culinary school teachers; his first serious chef, the decorated Swiss-New Zealander Mark Limacher, for a gruelling work ethic and understanding of classical cooking at Wellington’s Roxburgh Bistro; David Thompson for sharing the secrets of his Thai kitchen at Nahm; and most recently Circa’s Andrew McConnell. He even acknowledges the role of a Singaporean kitchen hand, Roland Lau, at Wellington’s Governor General’s residence, during a spell that saw Shewry cooking – literally – for royalty.
"Peter Gordon [executive chef of London’s The 3 Providores] came in the other night and afterwards he told me it had been one of the best dining experiences of his life," says Shewry. "It was one of the highlights of my career." It’s a telling anecdote. Shewry is disarmingly polite, unreasonably modest and immensely grateful for his opportunities.
But the head chef of the small but rather delicious Attica has made his own luck, blending that cocktail of experience, sober diligence, creative thinking and latitude from a hands-off boss, owner David Maccora, to come up with a modern style that has caught a lot of people happily off guard with its inventiveness.
It wasn’t always so. During the first week at Attica, a table relayed a message to the kitchen: "Whoever wrote this menu must be on speed". They got up and left. Says Shewry now: "That was fairly hard to take. I wondered if I should be cooking fillet with béarnaise and fries." Not much later, another table asked for the chef to come out, says Shewry, "and they said to me that whatever I did, I should stick to my guns. It was a defining moment; it actually brought tears to my eyes".
Shewry did stick to his guns. Good press begat great press, as the 30 year old managed the rare balancing act between creativity and a kitchen that worked at a fiscal level. What is even more surprising is that his food is very labour intensive and the chef does virtually everything, from making black pudding to curing fish in-house. He loves the path of most resistance.
74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, Vic, (03) 9530 0111,www.attica.com.au.
WORDS JOHN LETHLEAN PORTRAIT DAVID MITCHENER