Ben Shewry’s just released his first book, Origin. He talks to Myffy Rigby about crying, kitchen stabbings and baked beans in the bed
Attica’s emo chef was born the year punk rock exploded. Parts of Jane Campion’s the Piano was filmed on his family’s land in New Zealand. The school he went to had a total of seven pupils. He likes to surf, he lives for the land and he’s sick of talking about foraging. His first book is a compilation of recipes and anecdotes, scary stories and musings on nature. But what’s with all the tears?
You had a pretty wild and rugged childhood of fishing, foraging, surfing and camping. Is white baiting in New Zealand just like in Footrot Flats?
Yes it is! That’s just such a fantastic part of our culture. It’s really good fun. It all just seemed normal to us. What didn’t seem normal is when we left that farm and bought a farm closer to a small town of about 5, 000 people, less than that, maybe 2,500 people. And the high school had 400 students. That was really tough – it was a big cultural change.
Do you miss doing things like that in Australia?
I do miss doing that sort of stuff, because it is so tightly regulated here. If you want to fish, you have to have a licence. To be able to take abalone is very difficult. There are only a few dates in the year. Which is a good thing, especially with the pressure that’s been on it in the past few years. There’s sort of a careless freedom in New Zealand. The most amazing thing about coming over here was how genuinely warm Australians were, how they treated us, and brought us in to their small communities and how appreciative I’ve always felt living here. I’m a New Zealander living in Australia but I’m an Australian chef. There’s no disputing that. Australia is now my home.
We’ve claimed you like we claimed Russell Crowe (even if we want to give him back a little bit now). You own Russell Crowe! I feel much more comfortable here now. Initially when I moved here ten years ago, and I started Attica three years after that, I felt like it would be insincere to create dishes based around Australia. I didn’t have enough experience around the country or enough knowledge of the history, but as the years went by I’ve started to look to Australia for inspiration and I was really surprised to find it was inside me.
There are a lot of mentions of your dad in Origin, but your mum doesn’t feature as much. Why?
It was the frame of mind I was in at that moment. Little boys always worship their fathers. The reality is that my mother was just as important. She’s this incredible strong woman, stronger than my father. My father is very emotional. He’d cry quite easy, my dad. Like me.
You’re a bit of a cry-baby, Ben.
I’m just an emotional guy.
You spend a bit of your spare time surfing. What are your top spots?
That’s easy. Number one spot in Australia – maybe even the world – is First Point in Noosa. I’m a long boarder, and that’s the long boarder Mecca. Locally, I really love Ocean Grove main beach where I live. A lot of people don’t like it, but that’s my beach, I can walk there.
You talk about how you first wanted to become a chef when you were five. But you don’t really talk about what that epiphany was, or why.
That’s because I don’t know. I was talking to my mother last week. And she said that when I was two years old I was playing with pots and pans on the floor. I had a potato in some water and a shoe and I was making a stew. I don’t know what led me to chose becoming a chef at five. Because chefs were not anything you desired to be. You desired to be a doctor or a farmer or a lorry driver. I don’t even know how I knew about chefs.
But you knew you had to be.
Yeah, I knew I had to be and it was all I wanted to do. From the time that I made my mind up, right through to the time I started studying to be a chef at 16, I was never anything else.
Even when you were working in the brothel-cum-guesthouse, you never questioned your career-path?
I look back on the decision and maybe I question it a little bit. I remember one Christmas three guys and their families from Black Power arrived. Black Power is one of the two most notorious gangs in New Zealand – like fucking hard core. I mean, you don’t look at these guys on the street, and they came to stay at the lodge in the country and we’re out there by ourselves and I’m 21 and I’m in this lodge and my mum is there. But fortunately the gangsters were super well behaved. But then there were these other people that did a runner, and did a shit in the bedroom. And I cooked them such a lovely breakfast.
The early Ben Shewry story is a pretty colourful one, filled with junkies, knife fights and breakfast incidents. How many times have you almost been stabbed?
Twice. Well, once I almost got stabbed and the other time at Attica I got threatened with a knife. That was heavy.
That’s terrifying, especially for such an emotional man.
Yeah but I reacted to that with fire. I don’t lie down and take that kind of stuff. That first time I did. But the second time I became enraged that he was such a coward that he threatened me with a knife. That’s how angry it made me.
You’ve said that you don’t like people asking you about foraging. But what do you want them to ask you about?
It’s not that I hate people asking me about foraging. It’s that I don’t want people poisoning themselves. It’s an important thing to me and it has been for my whole life. It’s five percent of what we do. But it’s become a bit of a catch-cry for restaurants. You have to understand it in a historical context. You need to pay respect to the fact that this country has probably the most amazing foragers ever. I’ve got the knowledge I do from what I’ve learned from native Australian people. I wish there was more of an appreciation for that culture. It seems kind of wrong, that a chef from New Zealand could capture people’s imagination with foraging. With all the information and history that is right here in front of us.
And little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous.
You get people on Twitter all the time saying, ‘Will this kill me?’ or ‘Will this make me sick?’
You talk about ‘leaf to root’ as passionately as ‘nose to tail’. Do you ever see yourself as potentially becoming a vegetable only restaurant?
Well it’s distinctly possible. At the moment I have only one meat course out of 13 courses. It’s a piece of wallaby. We serve it with its own blood. Which doesn’t sound appealing but it’s really delicious.
There’s an entire page in Origin devoted to eating apples. It’s impressive.
I’ll never be over apples. Rippon Lea Orchard have the second largest collection of heritage apples in Victoria and it’s the orchard that we harvest from. From the end of December until March we can pick apples there for the restaurant. There are 150 varieties. Each tree has one variety. Each day we pick a different tree. I’m terrible with names, but there’s this russetted one which is kind of almost yellow inside which I really like. It’s really intense and delicious. I like apples that are powerful. I’m nothing else but an apple man, I’m not a nashi, I’m no hybrid, no jazz apple. I’m pure.
Origin, Murdoch Books. Out November 1. RRP $95