How could I have known as I travelled by train out to one of Melbourne's nondescript suburbs to meet a New Zealand chef, that the meeting would end in tears? Mine.
Ben Shewry is head chef of Attica in Ripponlea and the previous day, the restaurant had picked up top honours at the Age Good Food Guide Awards for Restaurant of the Year. Last year Shewry was voted Chef of the Year in the same awards. In fact the accolades have been coming thick and fast for this young chef who grew up in the backblocks of Taranaki and moved to Melbourne nine years ago. In 2008 he was recognised as Gourmet Traveller's Best New Talent, last year he made the list of Top 20 Rising Stars in the prestigious Food & Wine Magazine as well as making history by being the first chef from Victoria to be invited to appear at Madrid Fusion 2010, the annual international summit of all things gastronomical. If you're a chef, this is the equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar. And earlier this year, Attica jumped from 73rd to 53rd place in the San Pellegrino World's 100 Best Restaurant Awards.
Owners David and Helen Maccora must be well-pleased with their decision in 2005 to hand over creative control of their kitchen to Shewry.
There's a waiting list to get a table and I'd only secured one because a mutual friend, a chef, had put in a good word. Luckier still, Shewry had agreed to an interview. I usually prefer to talk to chefs after I've sampled their cooking in case they're the silent type - at least then I can break the ice by talking about their food.
When I turn up at the restaurant, I find Shewry in surprisingly good form despite admitting to feeling horribly jet-lagged. He'd just flown back from Denmark where he was one of the guest speakers at the inaugural Mad Foodcamp ("mad" means food in Danish), an initiative of chef Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's famed restaurant Noma. Redzepi was so impressed after he ate at Attica a while back that he invited Shewry to join the select line-up of chefs, farmers, foragers and leading food scientists who were gathered to discuss how to build a healthier and more sustainable food culture. When I asked Shewry how it went I got a rather surprising answer; "It was amazing, I could talk about my feelings." Forget the small talk, we were straight into it. It sounded as though finding others who shared his philosophy for sustainability was just what he'd been looking for.
"I really appreciated being included and I like what Rene is trying to do with Mad. It's not about being commercial, there are no sponsors or billboards anywhere. It's open to chefs and farmers only. He wants to create a stage where we share our feelings without being self-focused or having to talk about 'the great things we've done'. I'm not interested in celebrity one bit. There's more important things for chefs and producers to be thinking about right now. We have a huge responsibility to lead on issues of the future of our food."
He speaks with such a heartfelt intensity, and devotion to sustainability, that it's impossible not be drawn into his world. "There's a lot of talk about sustainability but there's too few in our industry who are truly taking this into their restaurants on a day-to-day basis." At this point, I decide to abandon my pre-prepared questions and just listen, for here is a chef thinking expansively, almost without limits, about the role that chefs need to play in the future of food. And then he says something I'll never forget; "Chefs can decide the fate of a species." We're both silent with a mix of heaviness and hopefulness. According to Shewry "Our responsibility as chefs is to be informed and to act." And act he does. He's taken all finned fish off the menu at Attica. "I looked into it. All big fish take a long time to grow, so it's better to not offer any of them rather than debating the merits of eating one species over another." Big call but one he says the owners of Attica never questioned it and his customers have been fully supportive.
Currently there's lots of talk in foodie circles about foraging. Shewry has been foraging since he was five years old. To him it just makes good sense. He began using plants foraged from urban and rural environments in the restaurant before the practice became popular. "Foraging" may be the new catchphrase but what does it really mean on a daily basis for this chef?
"I live out of Melbourne, down on the Bellarine Peninsula, and I'll pick in the ocean in the morning and then head into the city, which is 90 minutes away from my house. We do a bit of urban foraging from the restaurant, in the laneways and down by the train tracks. This foraging in our direct environment helps to sort of manage and keep us in touch with our immediate surrounds and to use the things that are there. Then, just before dinner service, I go to another coast about 15 minutes away and I pick seaweeds and beach plants from there. And all the staff at Attica are involved, I think that's completely different from any other restaurant."
I'd heard that his presentation in Denmark was fairly atypical too. It was called The Cycle of Love and involved him building a small campfire on stage, complete with cooking pot set over the fire. He also showed a short film he'd made and he asked me if I'd like to see it before I left. So there we sat, shoulder to shoulder in the emptiness of the usually bustling dining room at Attica, watching his five minute film, Kobe and the Sea. And that was when I felt my tears welling up. It shows Shewry and his six-year-old son Kobe, rugged up against the elements, exploring a beach. A gentle voiceover from Shewry tells of how his own father took him to do the same when he was a boy growing up in NZ, teaching him where to find edible plants and sea life which they'd collect and cook over a small open fire. As the movie progresses we see Shewry and his son doing the same, on a wind-swept beach near Melbourne. It was so heartfelt and gentle and it caught me off guard. It finished and I was left trying desperately to blink away my tears. I couldn't work out what had touched me more - that here was this boy from rural NZ who is so incredibly talented he has made it to the world culinary stage or, that this film was such a small and humble gesture in an attempt to highlight an almighty problem with regards the future of our food chain?
I emerged from Melbourne's top restaurant into the daylight and headed straight for the shabby cafe a few doors down. I needed to collect myself. By Shewry's own admission, his food is "emo food - full of memories and emotion". I hadn't even sampled it yet and already I was an emotional wreck.
By the time we arrive for our booking that evening, I am composed and the modest and unpretentious dining room has taken on the warm buzz of a full dinner service. I'm joined by my Melbourne-based sister and a friend of hers, for whom this will be a fourth visit to Attica.
Reading the eight-course, $160 per person tasting menu doesn't give us any clue of what we're in for. Dishes are described in minimal detail and my sister and I are totally unprepared for the nostalgic journey back into our childhood that we're about to take.
It starts with a mountain. The "Snow Crab" is a dish inspired by Shewry's childhood growing up in the backblocks of Taranaki, with the snow-capped Mt Taranaki never far from sight. Succulent, sweet crab is combined beautifully with verjuice, puffed jasmine rice, salmon roe and freeze dried coconut. A cloud of horseradish-flavoured "snow" caps it off. It looks spectacular framed by its black plate but it's the taste that counts and it is absolutely sublime. Our tastebuds continue to be delighted by strangely familiar flavours with the next dish. Inspired by the hangi, it was this creation that wowed the audiences in Madrid last year. Simply described as "Potato cooked in the Earth it was Grown", a creamy, yellow potato rests on a pool of pure white smoked goats curd which is garnished with fried saltbush leaves, coconut husk and ground coffee. It is complex, yet undeniably comprehensible if you've ever enjoyed the spoils that emerge from the steaming baskets of the hangi pit. I have never tasted a more perfect potato. Next up we're treated to the meat from the pearl oyster paired with crisp, melt in your mouth pig's tail sitting on a shitake mushroom broth. And on it went, plate after plate of delightful surprises of ingenious, exquisite food.
"It's like he's homesick for NZ" commented my sister and by the time we arrived at desserts I found myself agreeing. The first of the sweet courses - "Apples & Leaves" - capture the essence of apples so perfectly it was as though we were tasting apples for the first time. Apple with jellied avocado oil, apple cream and candied grape leaves, all crunchy and autumnal in colour, adorned the plate. My favourite course, though, was the "Mandarin & Honeydew". Fresh mandarin is macerated in honeydew, which comes from the South Island and is created by tiny insects that feed on the sap in the bark of the beech tree. Textural elements are added with freeze dried mandarin segments and a silky caramelised calvados custard sauce. One mouthful and I was reminded of that wonderful honeyed rice bubble cake that we made as kids, albeit this one had a whole lot more sophistication.
Shewry gets what it takes to be exceptional - you have to be prepared to offer something of your true self to the diner if you want them to have a memorable, original experience. In his words "I always want to do something very different, something that speaks of the person that's making it. Therefore I look to my memories for inspiration."
Finally a bird's nest is delivered to our table. Inside rest three salted caramel-filled "pukeko eggs". A small print of a painting by Ben's father, Rob, accompanies it. It shows a pair of pukeko foraging in a wetland. On the back there's a message from Ben: "Being a thoughtful cook is about understanding ... for me it's important to have respect and empathy for animals and plants and a connection with the past".
I may have shed some tears in the afternoon, but emerging from Attica that evening I couldn't keep the smile off my face. Shewry has created in Attica a playful dining experience where you feel like you're exploring and foraging alongside one of Melbourne's best. I'd been so swept way with the adventure that I almost felt I should check my knees for mud and my toes for sand!
We spilled out on to the quiet main street of Ripponlea feeling exhilarated - by the childhood memories, the fantasies, by the cheeky flights of fancy and the deadly serious brilliance of Ben Shewry, the Taranaki boy who is doing his best to preserve the planet, one ingredient at a time. The future looks hopeful.