Attica chef-owner Ben Shewry on the psychology of his coffee drinking, the beauty of conversation, and the intrinsic joy food brings him.
When BeanScene asked to interview chef Ben Shewry about five or six years ago, the request was met with a polite decline.
Ben wasn’t a coffee drinker. This time around, something’s changed.
“I am a coffee drinker now,” Ben says. “I am New Zealand born but I am from Melbourne, and it’s sacrilegious not to drink coffee.”
Ben says the real reason he abstained for so long was out of fear of caffeine addiction.
“[Coffee] wasn’t something I longed for, but I have never disliked the flavour of it. What I dislike is being addicted to things. In my teens, I developed an addiction to Diet Coke. It was quite hard to give it up, but I did. I went cold turkey for probably 20 years. Then we undertook a really massive renovation at Attica [Ben’s fine-dining- restaurant in Victoria]. I was working 20 to 22-hour days for 15 days to build a new dining room, and I started drinking coffee,” Ben says.
“I was on site with tradie friends and family, and everybody drank lattes. To support them I’d go to the café across the road to buy lattes for everybody and I started drinking it too. I quite liked it. It’s been a great decision, and I have to say, that unlike Diet Coke, I’m not addicted to it and can go without if I want.”
As it turns out, coffee brewing is an important part of Ben’s family heritage.
“I had a Canadian grandmother, Elaine. My father said she was one of the first people in New Zealand to have some sort of stove top coffee brewing device. She drove specifically from where we lived in Taranaki to Wellington to purchase it in the 1950s or 60s,” Ben says. “My father always said it was a really big deal.”
But the legacy didn’t last. Tea drinking was more prevalent in Ben’s family than instant coffee, however, he recalls drinking some sort of coffee extract combined with condensed milk in a steel toothpaste tube he’d add hot water too.
“It tasted like sweetened coffee. It was pretty delicious and something we would have when we went camping at the Tahora Folk Festival in Taranaki my uncle ran,” he says.
On-the-go coffee has come a long way, with Ben noticing its evolution when he recently enjoyed a coffee drip bag in a Japanese hotel, and from Padre coffee in Melbourne.
He credits Market Lane Coffee Founder Fleur Studd for inspiring him about coffee and igniting his enthusiasm.
“I saw Fleur applying this incredible sourcing detail to her coffee which mirrors our sourcing detail at Attica,” he says. “So, every time I’m in Prahran Market I visit Market Lane.”
In Wellington, Ben enjoys Coffee Supreme. In Melbourne’s CBD, he loves visiting “coffee institution” Brother Baba Budan. In his home suburb of Caulfield North, it’s Goodies; and in Ripponlea, home to Attica, Ben spreads the love between Follow the Leader Café and Spout Cafe.
Ben says one of the privileges of his vocation as a cook, has been travelling the world over with regularity, but he’s adamant nothing compares to Melbourne coffee.
“Australia is miles ahead of everyone else. Anyone to suggest otherwise is foolish,” he says.
“There’s not really another country or another city to compare Melbourne too. I know you can go to Copenhagen and have a good coffee. I know you can go to Portland and have a good coffee there. But those are isolated experiences. They’re not just around the corner from wherever you are. I think that’s the power of Melbourne’s coffee scene. Generally, you can expect to have great coffee everywhere.”
That expectation starts at 5.30am when Ben wakes up and turns his Moccamaster on. He grinds his Market Lane beans, makes the maximum pot, and sits on his morning brew for a few hours while he writes from 5.30am to 8.30am.
“I’m writing a memoir. It’s been my life for the last eight months. I’ll keep that morning ritual going until I have to hand the manuscript in at the end of November,” he says.
Sharing this project for the first time, Ben reveals the book will be “a conversation and a search for the meaning of everything”.
“I love writing. I failed a lot of subjects in high school, but writing was one of the things I excelled at, as well as things I did with my hands, such as wood working. I have fond memories of it. Positive reinforcement from good teachers means that I still love it today,” he says.
Away from the classroom, Ben’s upbringing was enriched with valuable life learnings on the family farm in North Taranaki. There, he and his two sisters got involved in the preparation and procurement of food, and grew up understanding what it was like to be “close to the source”.
“We didn’t have much money, but it never felt like that because we had a lot of food in lots of ways because my parents farmed sheep and cattle. To this day they’re really passionate gardeners, so there was always a very sizable vegetable garden. Plus, we were in a pretty wild environment so there was lots of wild food, whether it be dad hunting or us harvesting berries, or going to the coast for shellfish. Food was probably the most important part of our lives in a lot of ways,” Ben says.
He learned early on about the directness of food. Before leaving the farm to study food at age 16, Ben had a clear understanding that meat comes from an animal, fish from the ocean, and brussels sprouts from the ground.
“A lot of children don’t learn these things, and that’s a real problem for our society, and for our planet. Learning about this directness was really important to me,” he says.
Ben’s horizon “exploded” when he went to chef school. His tutors from Switzerland, France and England taught him the fundamentals of French cuisine. It was only when Ben started cooking professionally in his late 20s that he appreciated his foundational years on the land, and started to care about sustainability as a result of seeing its impact on his sourcing.
“I’m not being remiss when I say I care about where things are from more than other cooks because of my childhood, because I lived with [that lifestyle]. It wasn’t something I had to learn about. It was something I knew about,” Ben says. “I lived with overfishing because I saw overfishing and then I saw the disastrous circumstance of that on the coastline where I lived.”
It’s for this reason that Ben established Attica restaurant in 2015 with a sustainable and holistic framework, and a motto to “do the absolute best we can and not hurt anybody in the process, whether that be community, our employees, or the planet”.
“We’re an independent business. There’s no big money behind us. It’s just cooking. I have a wonderful team. The reason we’re fiercely independent is so that we can make the creative decisions we need to, and to keep going in the direction that I want to, which is a state of constantly evolving and getting better,” Ben says. “[I’m not] interested in trends or following fashion or anything like that. We just want to do our own creative thing. We have for 17 years, and that will never ever change as long as I still run it. That’s where the intrinsic joy is for me – finding new ways to evolve it, present things, and move the conversation around food more.”
For Ben, the conversations that have arisen from and with food, elicit some of the most powerful connections, whether it be shared at home, in a café, or a restaurant.
“Sometimes the conversation is about the food, and sometimes the food evokes some sort of memory: that time you went on a hunting trip, that time you nearly caught a trout or had a terrible meal on an aeroplane,” Ben says. “But what it does, is start a coming together of different people from different backgrounds, and there’s beauty in that.”
As such, Ben places little merit on accolades, such as Attica achieving an all-time high ranking of number 20 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018. What he values, is maintaining excellence for his restaurant guests.
“I don’t put any emphasis on external sources of validation other than our guests, our community and our staff,” Ben says. “Those are the people that matter. It’s such a privilege to have an audience and do our work for them.”
This article appears in the June 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.