Despite the cultural clout that comes with its standing as one of world’s best restaurants, Attica has a particularly unassuming feel this morning. The tables aren’t set, the lights aren’t on and the only indication of some action is the hum of the vents from the kitchen and some movement from the chefs already prepping.
Chef Ben Shewry walks into the dining room with a warm greeting. Attica is a beacon of creativity and Shewry is the brains and backbone behind it. He works long hours, as do his staff and his personality and approach is a fluid blend of the affable and the intense. It’s a rare quality, let alone for chef often working 18-hour days.
This dedication to his craft has seen Shewry not just helm the Attica kitchen, but over the last 10 months, develop a garden at the Glenhuntly Road restaurant, followed by the significant lease from the National Trust at Ripponlea Estate in November last year, a quick two-minute walk from Attica.
It’s all part of Shewry’s evolution as a chef and food visionary. His aim is to instil a culture of self-sufficiency and one of pride and the understanding of provenance and origin among his staff. “We buy vegetables from suppliers, but no herbs, no salad, no leaves,” he says. “We are 100 per cent self-sufficient and we use a lot of herbs – every dish has got leaves on it – so it’s a big deal for us.”
It was September 2011 that Shewry initiated the first stage of the Attica garden. “I built the beds and the staff filled them,” he says. “It was a car park before, but what’s more important? To have better quality herbs and greens or for staff to have a car park? It was an easy question that answered itself.”
Any new project takes time to establish itself and when Mother Nature is involved, the time it takes can be up to her. “Soil needs time to settle,” says Shewry. “Initially it wasn't a huge success. We started with tomatoes and they were a complete failure, but with that we realised what we need to grow.”
The staff started to compost all of their organic scraps from the kitchen, which started to improve things. After a couple of crops it started to come right. “The thing about gardening is understanding what your requirements are and how best to utilise your space to meet those requirements,” Shewry says, as we wander through the garden beds and start to pick and taste the leaves. “We feel like we’re starting to get it down now.”
Shewry points to leaves, sprouting healthily along a back bed. They are all different kinds of mustards – red giant, Osaka green, curly mustard – “and they’re all amazing” he urges. Indeed, the delight Shewry exudes in talking about his craft – the thought behind the dishes, their complexity and execution – is palpable.
“We’re thinking about doing a smoked short rib,” he enthuses. “Lately we’ve been making our own Dijon mustard from scratch, which has been a good experience, so we want to make a dish with smoked beef, Dijon mustard and about five or six varieties of mustard leaves.”
We take the short walk to Ripponlea, the stately home where Attica lease their larger, ever-expanding garden (it currently takes up about 400 square metres of the private grounds).
Attica’s relationship with Ripponlea came about through cider of all things. While Shewry had long dreamt of having a garden on the famous grounds, he had never known how to approach Ripponlea and the National Trust. It wasn’t until Shewry and wine writer Max Allen hatched a plan to make cider together that Allen suggested they speak to Justin Buckley (head gardener at Ripponlea) about using apples from the property’s orchard, and it all fell into place. “The day came that we met Justin and he said, ‘We’ve been thinking for years about asking you to come and do a garden with us’,” he laughs. Both parties had been thinking the same thing all along.
There are some crucial points to consider in the setup of a garden for a restaurant, the most important being proximity. “There’s no point having the garden too far away,” Shewry says as we walk though the disciplined beds of tended soil carrying a feast of leaves and some vegetables. “It doesn’t work; you have to be able to access it at the drop of a hat.
“This isn’t just for harvesting, but for critical conditions like 40-degree days,” he continues. “We are in the garden 10 to 15 times a day.”
While all the staff help tend the garden, one chef is the harvester and it’s his job, every day, to spend four to five hours harvesting for dinner service and this is combined with the foraging he needs to do as well.
As Shewry walks through the garden, which sits in front of the apple orchard with its 150 varieties of heritage apples, it’s clear he’s gotten to know some plants better than others, and there are favourites.
We walk through winter beds of wormwood, lemon geranium, pineapple sage and black radish. “We grow things you can’t buy,” he says as we stop at plant called ‘Tansy’.
“We didn’t really know what Tansy was – it’s a bitter, twisted plant,” he laughs. “It’s eight months on and I still haven’t mastered Tansy. I know the traditional ways people use it; they make a tea from it and use it in stuffings but that’s not what I’m going to do. One day I’ll conquer Tansy,” he smiles as we keep walking.
These are the kinds of conversations Ben Shewry has with his garden, his staff and himself. It’s a financial and emotional commitment to maintain this garden, but it’s also one of the reasons Attica is what it is. “When you have a garden and you invest a lot of money, you also invest a lot of emotion into it through hard work,” he says.
Indeed, the Attica staff are the keepers of the garden and hence their connection to their produce and product is as close as it can be. “There’s been a dish on the menu of pearl meat with black radish,” Shewry says. “The guy who’s cooking that dish each night has been responsible for planting that black radish, so in essence, his connection to the dish is far greater because he understands how hard it is to grow that black radish.”
As such, Shewry is educating his staff about the time it takes to forge a skill, develop a craft and nurture a passion. The staff look after this garden and its bounty everyday.
“For a customer, that should be the purest form of luxury,” says Shewry as we wander on. “Not a truffle, not foie gras, but that you’ve come to a place and the guy’s grown the ingredient for you. What could be better than that?”
74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea
(03) 9530 0111