“Ben Shewry had nothing to do with this meal.” Would you dine at Attica, Australia’s top-ranked restaurant, knowing its chef was definitely not going to be in the kitchen? Is it like going to a Katy Perry concert where only her back-up dancers are on stage? Are restaurants about the chef or about the team? And why would a restaurant advertise the fact the chef’s not cooking?
These questions and more were explored on Monday night at Attica, as Ben Shewry stepped out of the kitchen while his staff came up with the menu. He joined the paying guests in the dining room in experiencing the nine-course tasting menu, from chicken consommé with fermented asparagus through to a dessert of potato ice-cream, kaffir lime and strawberry gum.
Anarchy at Attica was as much a test of diners’ expectations as it was off the staff. Is Attica Ben Shewry? Or do we put too much emphasis on the person at the top?
“I trust the hell out of them,” Shewry says of his team. “They’re more than capable. I wanted to give them that opportunity. It’s like, ‘This is my baby and I’m prepared to allow you to hold my baby’.”
The dining room at Attica
When Melbourne Food & Wine Festival brought the idea to Shewry last year, he jumped on it, before quickly jumping out of the way so his team could start working on their dishes.
Nine senior kitchen staff each paired with a member of the front-of-house team to work on a course and a drink to match. The story behind each dish was printed in a brown paper booklet that doubled as the menu.
The final creations were not unlike something you’d eat at Attica on any other night, with foraged beach plants, marron and vegetables from the garden all making appearances.
The meal opened with an Australian take on ssäm, the Korean dish that involves wrapping leaves around grilled meats and other tasty morsels, but in this case featured ingredients like finger lime and macadamia nuts alongside vegetables and pickles. This was paired with a soju and quandong cocktail. Next up came a dish of seafood and beach plants, followed by beets from the garden cooked hangi-style, pigeon paired with onion and muntries, pavlova and more.
The stories that came with each dish gave a glimpse into life at Attica, as well as the diverse backgrounds of the chefs that work there and what they’ve taken away from their time working under Shewry. One staff member, Tommy, wrote about foraging for plants by the coast and being shocked by their bitter flavours. Other staff talked about their memories of fermented asparagus from back home in Denmark, and discovering an allergic reaction to marron after spending countless hours on that section at the restaurant.
Members of the team at Attica
“It was also making them think about their time here too,” Shewry says. “To reflect on who they are and what they learned. I know that you can’t start your own creative journey young enough.”
As well as being a creative exercise, it was also a practical one, with Shewry asking each team to cost their dish and stick to a budget. “If they’re going to go and open a restaurant, they’re going to need that skill.”
True to the statement that opened the menu – “Ben Shewry had nothing to do with this meal” – the team quietly worked for months in the development kitchen next door to Attica, keeping secret ferments in the fridges and making the most of any time Shewry was away travelling. Sous chef Matthew Boyle tasted every dish along the way.
So how did they do?
“Even if it is a staff takeover, there’s a sense that you need to meet a standard that’s good enough for the restaurant regardless of whether I’m involved,” Shewry says.
And it sounds like they met that high watermark, although he refuses to name a favourite dish.
“You can’t ask me that. That’s like saying which of my three children is my favourite.”
When Shewry posted about Anarchy at Attica on his personal Instagram account, the response that came from chefs – both senior and junior – was overwhelmingly positive, with some even asking to borrow the idea for their own restaurants.
Could chefs ceding power be a sign of the times?
Ben Shewry is a Lexus Ambassador. Lexus is proud to support the 2019 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
By Emma Breheny