Tasting Australia Airlines: Coober Pedy
Ben Shewry describes his approach to cooking as a “bastard child of a lot of different, strange influences”. He arrived in Melbourne in 2002 from New Zealand with a CV comprising stints in hotel kitchens, tiny family bistros and nightclubs. He was a young chef trained wholly in European cooking with an obsession for Thai food. He thinks that if someone with this same mongrel CV were to walk into his kitchen looking for a job today he might not even consider it. But he also knows you have to start somewhere.
Melbourne enabled him to work with chefs like Andrew McConnell and observe the long-running success of restaurants like Flower Drum, France-Soir and Cafe Di Stasio. But equally important was the support of Melbourne diners after he landed his first head chef gig at Attica in 2005.
Ben grew up on a remote sheep and cattle farm in Taranaki, a mountainous coastal region on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Ben believes his mother’s insistence on him understanding the indigenous culture of New Zealand as a child has influenced his decision to learn more about the culture and food traditions of indigenous Australians. He believes in talking to aboriginal Australians not just about how to use indigenous ingredients but about the culture behind the ingredients, to put that food into the same sort of cultural context we expect for Thai or Italian or Greek cuisine. The dinner table, he believes, is a great place for a conversation about reconciliation.
Ben sees Attica as a creative small enterprise, part of Melbourne but also separate to it. He loves the independence that comes from fully owning the restaurant he cooks for. He wants to be humble about Attica, treat the people who work, supply and dine there well but still be able to resist people telling him what he should be doing.