Saving the planet, one ingredient at a time

By Nici Wickes

Kiwi-born Melbourne-based chef Ben Shewry, author of a new cookbook, impresses with his food philosophy.

Chef Ben Shewry. Photo / Supplied
Chef Ben Shewry. Photo / Supplied

As a journalist you remember some interviews more than others. When I arrived at Melbourne's award-winning restaurant Attica more than a year ago to talk to New Zealand-born chef Ben Shewry, I couldn't have known that an hour later I would stumble out of there, into the midday sun, and burst into tears.

Talking to Shewry had moved me in ways I hadn't expected. The gentle intensity with which he approaches his craft and everything else he does, from raising a young family to heading up the kitchen of this world-class restaurant to travelling the world sharing his philosophies on what chefs can be doing to preserve the future of our food, had me astounded and humbled.

His words still burn in my brain. "Chefs can decide the fate of a species. Our responsibility as chefs is to be informed and to act". And act he did, taking finned fish off the menu at Attica after discovering that the sustainability plan for most finned species was precarious at best.

A lot has happened in the 12 months since we last spoke; Shewry is now well and truly sought after as a guest chef at the most prestigious food symposiums and gatherings world-wide, Attica continues to win awards for its innovation and excellence and Shewry has just published his first cookbook, Origin.

In true Shewry style (anyone how has seen his live "cooking performances" will know he never does things by halves) the book is a masterpiece and goes well beyond the usual dimensions, literally. The huge, cloth-bound tome emulates a slab of granite with its cover design a heavily embossed image of the earth's layers. But it's what's on the inside that is even more impressive. Interspersed with the detailed recipes (including Shewry's famous "snow crab" inspired by Mt Taranaki and "potato cooked in the earth it was grown", drawing from his childhood memories of hangi) is a raw and honest account of Shewry's path from a childhood spent in rural New Zealand, through the kitchens here and in Australia, to becoming one of the world's most respected chefs.

Talking with him, you get the impression of the exhaustive effort required to get this book to fruition, to have it live up to the high aspirations that seem to drive Shewry in all he embarks on. The book was three years in the making and there was no part of Shewry that wanted to "dumb it down". When I ask him what it's like to see his book in physical form he responds with his trademark honesty. "Of course it's great but it's tinged with knowing what it took to get it there too. I thank my family for letting this happen because in the end it's them who bear the load each time I take on another project and this was definitely a time and energy hungry project."

Despite the projects, increasing travel commitments and ideas he is constantly working on, Shewry remains focused on what he sees as his primary task, that of being a chef. "Attica is a high maintenance restaurant, with a reputation to uphold and so I keep cooking regardless of what other projects I have going on". His most recent venture is taking over the building next door to Attica to set up a research kitchen and library. Though many of the top restaurants around the world have dedicated research kitchens, this may well be the first of its kind in Australia and Shewry is very excited.

"It is going to be so good to get the creative side out of the main kitchen because it gets messy in the middle of the day with people coming and going from the gardens, suppliers dropping in and prep happening for the evening. It will be such a relief to have some quiet space so that we can be dedicated to researching plants and local native products."

One gets the impression that Shewry is right where he wants to be: "It's been seven years since I took over at Attica and I can say that now I have the team I've always wanted to work with. In fact it reminds me of the dream team I worked with at Roxborough Bistro in Wellington all those years ago - hard-working, dedicated and honest." Before we finish, he tells me there's one other idea that he's turning into action: he's setting up a film production company to "make restaurant-based films" he tells me excitedly. He makes me smile with his anticipation and delight for whatever is coming up next for this talented chef of the world.

Origin by Ben Shewry ($120: Murdoch Books) is available in bookstores now.

- NZ Herald

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