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‘You can’t take the ingredients and not have some knowledge of the culture and the people.’

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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

Ben Shewry is the chef and owner of Attica, named in the world's top 20 restaurants in 2018. A native of New Zealand, he moved to Melbourne in 2002, and began exploring the native Australian ingredients that have made his restaurant famous around the world.

Ben was featured in the first season of Netflix series Chef's Table, and despite receiving numerous accolades in the food world, his creative passion is as down-to-earth as it gets. We spoke to him about inspiration in Melbourne, the city's diverse culture, and the future of native Australian food.


On where you’re from

I’m from the region of Taranaki, which is on the west coast of the north island of New Zealand, about halfway between Wellington and Auckland.

On moving to Melbourne

I moved here in 2002, when I was 25 years old. I’d worked in what I would call the best place in New Zealand at the time, and to really expand my knowledge and broaden my horizons, I felt I had to come to Melbourne because the restaurants at the time were on another level.

On your relationship with Melbourne

It’s home to me, first and foremost; I love the city. To be honest, I moved away from the city after living in Melbourne for about five years; I moved to Ocean Grove for about eight years, and two years ago I moved back to Melbourne, so I’ve fallen in love with it and explored it all over again. I spent a lot of time exploring the city when I first got here — two full days a week just exploring the city, the food culture, all the neighborhoods that nobody writes about or cares about. All the unloved places in Melbourne. I spent a lot of time in different ethnic communities, which informed my relationship with the city in a lot of ways. It’s definitely the best city in the world to live in, for me.

Growing native Australian ingredients in the garden. Image credit: Colin Page

On your passion for native Australian ingredients

Growing up where I did in Taranaki, New Zealand, that’s where I was exposed to and first learned about First Nation peoples’ culture: Māori culture, Indigenous culture. So growing up with the hāngī, the traditional cooking method of the New Zealand Māori, and growing up with the marae, the traditional meeting place of the New Zealand Māori, this was an everyday thing for me. Learning the language at school, having Māori friends and a mother who spoke a lot of the language, it was just what we did. When I moved to Australia, it was a very stark contrast in 2002. I just didn’t see culture here, and I didn’t see Indigenous culture. It’s not a part of broader society really, and that was kind of shocking to me. 

My interest of Attica started off with all of my personal experiences of my own culture and heritage, and those informed the cooking and, over time, my interest in indigenous Australian ingredients and therefore the culture got stronger and stronger, because in my opinion you can’t take the ingredients and not have some knowledge of the culture and the people. So, for me, it was really important that I be able to pass on some of that knowledge and tradition to people eating the ingredients, if they were interested.

‘I spent a lot of time exploring the city when I first got here... the food culture, the neighborhoods that nobody writes about or cares about. all the unloved places in Melbourne.’

On a native ingredient you haven’t tried yet

I’d like to work with the native Australian grape — that’s something that I haven’t had the opportunity to really work with yet — because I’d love to make something to drink from it. I think that would be mind-blowing. It’s almost every week there’s something that we learn about that we haven’t had that we can’t get, that’s not been cultivated, that only exists in the wild, so there’s always something new that you want to try.

On what Australian food represents now and in the future

I think now it represents multicultural society; this history of migration. In Melbourne, you can get very good Vietnamese food, very good Chinese, Greek food, Italian food. In the area I work in, there is a large Jewish community, so you can get Jewish food. We do a good job of representing the different migrations that came here and influenced us, and I think that the final part really is the acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through their cooking, because while you can sense the waves of migration here, you can’t really sense the First Nation people through their food at the moment. Not often, anyway. Their culture is still alive and thriving but it’s not represented in a broader society enough. So I think it would be really nice to see a future where Indigenous people are really included in that conversation about what is Australian food. Not just the ingredients, but the people themselves and the culture. I think for people coming in from overseas, that’s kind of what you want to see. Whenever I travel to France, for example, I don’t want to eat sushi, I want to eat French food, something traditional. When people come to Australia from overseas, I think they want to eat something that has a sense of country. I think we’re coming to that but we want to be careful that we’re not just doing it in a tokenistic way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be included, and that’s the bottom line.  

Inside the Attica restaurant space, and whipped emu egg with quandong from the Attica kitchen. Image credit: Colin Page

On your creative inspiration

Generally I’m not really that interested in what’s going on in my industry — and that’s not to pay any disrespect to the many amazing people that work in food in Australia. Just, for me, it really is a personal journey and I’m not influenced by other people’s cooking. I love to go and eat other people’s cooking to enjoy their personal take on it. 

For me, particularly in the last six years, I’m really influenced by learning and understanding about cultural aspects of our country. That’s hugely inspiring. Art is a big inspiration; my father is a fine artist and I have a lot of artist friends, and they are really inspiring. Music is a huge inspiration that’s always fueled my creativity. My team at Attica is a big inspiration — there’s quite a big creative team there in both front of house and back of house in the kitchen. The creativity and development is very much a shared thing, which I direct but it’s very much a team effort, so there’s a lot of inspiration with those great people as well. Just having good positive experiences. Adventure is really inspiring — you know you can be somewhere and not think that anything really exciting or interesting is going to happen, and then some major reveal will happen and you think, ‘Wow, I never thought about it that way, and we did this.’

‘I think now Australian food represents multicultural society...The final part really is the acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through their cooking, because while you can sense the waves of migration here, you can’t really sense the first nation people through their food at the moment.’

On conditions for creativity

Most of the time, inspiration and creativity is about keeping yourself in a really healthy headspace. Focusing on your mental health if you’re a creative person — or any person, obviously — focusing on living an engaged and healthy life as much as you can, is really really important to be able to create. I know history would say that, you know, you can’t create until you’ve suffered, or you’ve become addicted to drugs, and that’s absolute nonsense. Most creativity is found by actually doing work — to be in the space where you can keep doing work. Being happy where you live and happy who you spend your time with is massive. 

On getting to know Melbourne

I think it’s great to just jump on a tram, jump on a train, jump on as many of those as you can. Getting out into the suburbs is really interesting here. Initially when I moved here, I spent a lot of time in places like Footscray, in Springvale — there’s a big Vietnamese and Chinese community there — and in Oakleigh. These are suburbs you’re not going to read too much about in any tour books, especially not in 2002, and I just found that they revealed a different way of life and a different look at the city than the more glamorised aspects of St Kilda at the time, the CBD or South Yarra, which are all great places but just don’t display the full diversity of the town. It’s a pretty big place, Melbourne, and I think really giving yourself time to explore it is really valuable. 

Melbourne's laneways of street art and multicultural food culture. Image credits: Linda Xu (above) and Adrian Malec (below).

On a few good corners of Melbourne

I think going to NGV is always something that I recommend to anybody that comes here — going to galleries, going to one of the many live music venues that we have here. I love going to The Corner to see bands, I love going to the Tote; those are things that I’ve always done. We’re obviously known for laneways and street art as well, and those are great things to check out. You can find something really cool in every part of this place. Every neighborhood has something special and you’ve got to be open to it.

On good coffee

Market Lane in Prahran Market is number one in my books.

On getting out of town

At the moment Mt Buller; it’s super relaxing going snowboarding up there. I love traveling the country with my partner, Kylie, and we’ve had some great trips to places like Benalla, which is a small town in country Victoria that has a great art scene. 

On where your next flight is taking you


On window seat or aisle

Window seat. Yeah, I like the window. 

On Melbourne in one word

Independent, I would say, because I feel like the city allows me this creative independence.


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‘You can’t take the ingredients and not have some knowledge of the culture and the people.’