To say keeping consistent interest in a restaurant is hard work would be an understatement, specifically during early weekdays. However, Attica owner and head chef, Ben Shewry, has used his international experience and intense love for food to transform the restaurant into an internationally recognised and in-demand destination for unique and carefully considered food.
Raised in New Zealand, Shewry had early experience at Wellington’s Roxborough Bistro, working with renowned chef Mark Limacher, who Shewry said is his biggest influence and a lifelong friend.
“He was the first guy to show me really what was up; he had that touch. He had this philosophical way about him, in that he loved being a chef, but was very astute with his business, with a balance between running the restaurant and his family, which is a rare thing to see,” said Shewry.
At a young age, Shewry was taught in the French style of cooking but was eager to experience different cuisine and what the world had to offer. He moved to Australia before spending time in America as a tireless student and food innovator passionate about producing both diverse and exquisite meals that garnered international appreciation.
“I started in incredibly humble circumstances, in a restaurant nobody had heard of, working on hotel buffets and supermarket bakeries – but somehow, all of these different experiences make me the cook that I am,” said Shewry.
Next on the list of travel was Thailand, where Shewry spent time with Nahm chef David Thompson, leading to Shewry’s thorough understanding of seasoning, which he uses to develop complex and challenging menu items that tantalise the palette.
However, a life of travel is not best for building a family, and with a wife and young child, Shewry needed to settle down and focus on one location.
“I needed a job. I was 27 with a young child and family. I found a job listing for head chef at Attica, and after ten years of working with David Maccora, I now own it,” said Shewry.
While Shewry quickly impressed then-owner Maccora, he knew there needed to be something different to attract customers to the restaurant during traditionally non-peak days.
“There needs to be demand. If the restaurant is not full every single night, if it is not at capacity then it is losing money. To make a small restaurant busy every night, you need to make Tuesdays as attractive as the weekends,” said Shewry.
This goal led to the development of Shewry’s ‘Chefs Table’ a once a week experimental menu that constantly changed, what Shewry described as a living, breathing addition that evolved week to week, and although the experiment ended in March, there are possibilities it may return.
“I worked on it during the weekend, and let the season dictate what ingredients would be featured. Many of the dishes were inspired by my childhood in rural New Zealand.”
The ability to adapt, and consistently reinvent new meals for the menu comes from an early childhood of foraging and working with what was available, while still cooking food that was different from the norm.
“We didn’t grow anything, and I wasn’t happy with what I could get from the markets because all the restaurants were using the same produce. It was obvious for me to go pick things from the wild or from along the coast where I lived.”
Shewry has also been featured in another ‘Chef’s Table’, the Netflix original series profiling various world-renowned chef’s, opening a candid window into the daily life of Shewry, alongside his detailed book ‘Origin’ that tells stories of Shewry’s life and various recipes he has developed along the journey.
“I’m an honest person with my food and with the way I am, so why would I change anything about myself to write a book? To me, there’s so much posturing and politics in life, why not lay it all out there?”
This attitude translates into Shewry’s work life, applying friendly pressure to keep his team on their toes, performing their best by managing a level of anxiety that Shewry believes is required to stay alert and avoid complacency.
“I am not someone who yells or screams, but I expect a lot. It is not a traditional kitchen with a regular hierarchy; everyone has responsibility, and it is ultimately a happy place. The focus is on the customer, making sure the food is what they want.”
Shewry produces a regular multi-course Extended Tasting Menu with 12 small appetisers, six larger courses (including two deserts) and finishing with a petit four. At his disposal is the kitchen garden with over 100 different plants, which often makes the menu change with the season.
While the natural progression for any successful chef is to open another restaurant, Shewry is holding off for now, letting the opportunity happen organically rather than rushing to expansion.
“It’s a really long life. A lot of people make a mistake by expanding too early.”