As Melbourne marked its 200th day in lockdown, Kiwi chef Ben Shewry shares the secret - and staggering statistics - behind the takeout dish that's helping keep his restaurant afloat.
How many Taranaki lasagnes does it take to save a Melbourne restaurant?
Once, diners at Ben Shewry's Attica used to pay $320 a head to dig through a pile of tomato leaf clippings with their fingers for cherry tomatoes smeared in miso.
They'd eat oysters in paperbark, caramels made with crocodile fat and sit at tables they'd reserved three months earlier for dinner cooked by the multiple award-winning Kiwi who starred in the first season of Netflix's The Chef's Table.
Now, they eat lasagne. Specifically, 8661 (and counting) lasagnes, all inspired by the recipe Shewry's mum used to make on the Awakino sheep and beef farm where the famous chef grew up.
"Birthdays, special occasions, Christmas Day - that was the main dish in our Shewry household. Christmas Day lasagne always. We looked forward to that the most.
"This is a very comforting thing from my childhood. I have such positive memories of my childhood from New Zealand, and this is my way of letting people know that we're going to be all right. That's what I'm trying to do with this dish."
Shewry is on the line from Melbourne, where, on Thursday, residents clocked up their 200th day in lockdown.
"It's pretty intense. I'm incredibly positive, but it is quite difficult to find anything positive in 200 days of being locked down, except that the loss of life that would have happened if we hadn't, would have been extreme, so . . . enough people died here already."
The Australian state's lockdown rules mean Shewry has been able to offer takeout and delivery menus every time his restaurant has been closed to diners.
"Everybody's different, but for me, early acceptance of the situation, whatever it is, enables me to do something about it. When it originally came to Melbourne in March last year, I had a day when I despaired, and that's the only day I've had. It was my birthday and I thought I was going to lose everything . . . and the next day we made plans.
"I didn't know if any of those plans would work, but you've got nothing to lose and all the staff were onboard with it. We're not immune to feeling down or blue about things, but we've all had a job - myself included - and we've been able to come to work."
Shewry says at least one staff member works a full eight-hour day making nothing but lasagne. And, according to the statistics he released on Instagram last week, Melbourne is loving it.
"The Attica Lasagne Census is the most comprehensive snapshot of lasagne in Australia and tells the story of how we are changing our lasagne eating habits as a nation," Shewry wrote. His tongue might have been firmly in his cheek when he suggested the region of Taranaki where lasagne originated was referred to as "Lasagne al Farm-o" but, he says, the numbers he posted were all true.
Since March last year, Attica's kitchen has churned out more than 7000kg of lasagne.
"Beef only," says Shewry. "No pork or veal, like you use in Bologna. It's quite basic. I know I'm talking it down a little bit, but it doesn't have a lot of fancy things in it."
Fresh pasta is pre-blanched ("that's one of our great secrets - I'm giving you a bit of a scoop there") and refreshed in iced water. It mimics, he says, his mum's technique.
"You know in New Zealand, you've got that really unusual lasagne? It's only about five or six centimetres long, and it's three or four centimetres wide and it comes dried in a packet and it's got that frilly edge? That doesn't exist anywhere else in the world as far as I'm aware. It doesn't exist here. It's super bizarre and quite difficult to use, but kind of delicious.
"My mum would boil that. That's where the idea of pre-blanching comes from - if you use dried pasta in lasagne it sucks up a huge percentage of the moisture so you've got no control over the consistency."
According to Shewry's number crunching, on any given day of a Melbourne lockdown, an average of 88 people will consume an Attica lasagne.
"I can't really define what it is about it. I always say there's no such thing as a bad lasagne. Like, even the worst lasagne you ever ate was quite nice. It's a soul food. It's definitely a hard times food."
And while Shewry has never put the lockdown lasagne on the Attica tasting menu, he says during one period when the restaurant was open for sit-down service, he experimented with a related Kiwi classic - the "evil but delicious" crumbed and fried lasagne topper.
"A tuck shop favourite of mine at Inglewood High School. We temporarily did a lasagne topper sandwich, sort of in honour of our lockdown time. I don't think the Australians fully got it. It didn't really catch on. I need to come back home and do it!"
Attica Lasagne Census Data 2020-2021
8661 lasagnes made
17,322 customers served
43,305 layers of pasta
1732kg of pasta used
2087kg bechamel made
2771kg of bolognese made
1820 litres of milk used
1732 hours of labour deployed
- Source: Instagram.com/benshewry