It was at a food congress in Europe, wearing a jacket so festooned with corporate logos that it looked more like the garb of a Formula One driver than anything a chef would wear, that Ben Shewry had an epiphany of sorts. "I felt like a sell-out," he said, "but I wasn't being paid." That moment inspired the Melbourne chef to stage a festival that put people first and brands second. An anti-festival, if you will. And thus the What a Wonderful World (or WAW) Gathering was born: three October days of talking and listening, work and play, cooking and feeding, all orbiting Attica restaurant, its team, and the friends Shewry has made cooking at home and abroad.
The Friday of the weekend saw Shewry and festival manager Sharlee Gibb split all the visitors into teams and take them out around Melbourne for a day of adventures: racing pedal-boats on Albert Park Lake, being given the space of one rotation on the Melbourne Star wheel to devise a dish for WAW Gives, the Sunday charity fundraiser lunch, and cramming Andrew's Burgers before an unlikely-seeming but hilarious battle at World Series Paintball in Oakleigh. (Facing Mark LaBrooy down the barrel of a gun is no picnic, we can report, let alone Jeremy "Take No Prisoners" Strode.) Things took a turn for the soigné with a feast at Attica, where bruises were compared and strategies analysed.
The highlights of WAW Talks at Spink St Warehouse in Brighton on the Saturday were many and varied. There was Paris chef Iñaki Aizpitarte sharing his moving and hilarious short film, Piece of Heaven, on the one a hand, and Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe challenging the historical representation of Aborigines as hunter-gatherers on the other. Bo Songvisava of Bo.Lan and Greenhouse/Brothl founder Joost Bakker tackled different aspects of the responsibility cooks and diners have to the environment, and Nahm's David Thompson tabled the idea of eco-Buddhism. Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying spoke about transforming discontent into motivation, while Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi gave the young chefs in the audience a reality-check: "We live in an era where we're told we can have anything. And it's not true."
Among the standouts on a day of inspiring speakers were Roy Choi, of Kogi food-truck fame, talking about how he found strength in kindness even as many around him thought it was a weakness, and 11-year-old bladesmith Leila Haddad, from the Tharwa Valley Forge in the ACT, discussing the importance of making things. All of that, plus Attica sommelier Banjo Harris Plane's "Natural Wine Rap".
Lunch for the day came courtesy of Gurnam Singh Cheema and Sunny Sharma, two members of the Attica kitchen team who volunteered to cook dahl and rice from their native Punjab for the 300-strong crowd and pay for it out of their own pockets.
And though it was billed as WAW Talks, there was much more to it than talking. Ceramicist Kris Coad threw pieces on the wheel as she spoke, while dancer Caetlyn Watson, drummer Gordo, basketball performer Samuele Fume, hula-hooper Christy Flaws, comedian Tom Gleeson, and shredder guitarist Nicholas Albanis all did their thing on stage. Aerosol artist Heesco created a portrait in remarkable time in front of the crowd, and singer-songwriter Casey Bennetto, of Keating! The Musical fame, wowed the room with a tune composed for the occasion.
After a fortifying session of hot and numbing eats at Dainty Sichuan, the chefs of the group (and their non-chef assistants, ahem) were up early (if not entirely bright) doing the final prep in the morning ahead of WAW Gives, a progressive lunch spread over the grounds of Rippon Lea Estate. Every available surface of Attica and its warren of back-rooms was put to use, the team of gun chefs powering through the peeling of broad beans, the trimming of artichokes, the blowtorching of suckling pigs and the manicuring of a mountain of foraged and Attica-grown leaves and flowers in record time.
Guests to the lunch wandered the extraordinary National Trust site, encountering Daniel Patterson fondling the noodles of the "Sober Crab" with his fellows by the archery hut, taking a cocktail garnished with beeswax with Bar Americano's Matthew Bax or eating marron with Iñaki Aizpitarte, Amuse's Hadleigh Troy, Franklin's David Moyle and Chris Ying in the lookout tower, or being given an impromptu primer on the life of the Zimbabwean freshwater sardine by Berta chef O Tama Carey, Bistro Dom's Duncan Welgemoed, Huxtable's Daniel Wilson and David Thompson in the cellar while they supped African spring dashi with turnips, potatoes and three garlics. Sommelier Banjo Harris Plane kept the drinks pairings at Attica levels of awesomeness, too, throwing down everything from cold-smoked juice made from the estate's apples and Two Metre Tall ale to Dönnhoff riesling and Bobar Yarra Valley syrah.
As deft and brilliant as the food was, there wouldn't be a chef or volunteer involved who would venture that any of it tasted quite so good as the red curry of mussels David Thompson whipped up on the fly afterwards at Attica, chased as it was by Negronis, more than a couple of tinnies and some impromptu robot-dancing.
WAW, read the festival's mission statement, was "inspired as much by the DIY-ethic of punk as it is the help-your-neighbours approach of grassroots living" and was as much about "working together to build the barn as it is crashing the barriers". WAW raised more than $25,000 for Helping Hoops, the charity that uses basketball to teach life-skills to underprivileged children, and with both the guests and chefs leaving the weekend inspired in some cases, exhilarated in others, it's safe to say that Shewry can declare this particular mission accomplished. Well done, chef Shewry, for creating a world-class event without compromising on your ideals. We can't wait to see what you do for the next one.
Kogi's Roy Choi, Coi's Daniel Patterson and Momofuku Ko's Josh Pinsky, from the US; Isaac McHale from London's Clove Club; Nahm's David Thompson and Bo.lan's Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones from Thailand; Ali Kurshat Altinsoy from Noma in Copenhagen; Iñaki Aizpitarte from Paris restaurant Le Chateaubriand; and Auckland chef Michael Meredith, of Meredith's.
Bistrode CBD's Jeremy Strode, 10 William Street's Daniel Pepperell, Berta's O Tama Carey, Bentley's Brent Savage, Quay's Peter Gilmore, Momofuku Seiobo's Ben Greeno, Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson from Three Blue Ducks, and Daniel Puskas from Sixpenny, all down from Sydney; James Viles from Biota in Bowral; Duncan Welgemoed from Bistro Dom and Emma McCaskill and Scott Huggins from Magill Estate in Adelaide; Hadleigh Troy from Restaurant Amusé in Perth; Ben Devlin from Esquire in Brisbane; Michael Ryan from Provenance in Beechworth; Rumi chefs Joseph Abboud and Jenna Abbruzzese, Bar Americano's Matthew Bax, Daniel Wilson from Huxtable, JP Twomey from Supernormal, Colin Wood from Cumulus Inc., Florent Gerardin from Pei Modern and Dave Verheul from The Town Mouse, all in Melbourne; and Luke Burgess from Garagistes, Provenance Growers' Paulette Whitney, and David Moyle from Franklin in Tasmania. On top of this lot were writers, editors and agitators Chris Ying, Andrea Petrini and Kenneth Nars, who flew in from San Francisco, Lyons and Helsinki respectively, plus your own loyal GT correspondent, Time Out Sydney's Myffy Rigby, The Age/GT contributor Dani Valent, and a full chorus of other eager helpers from Attica and a clutch of other Melbourne restaurants who volunteered their time and talent.