With over 800 judges trawling the globe to pick out the world’s top restaurants, and no indication if or when they’ll ever drop into yours, it’s no wonder that being placed on the San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants list is something that hasn’t quite sunk in for Ben Shewry of Ripponlea’s Attica.
The head chef and creative powerhouse behind dishes that have wowed international audiences admits to being taken by surprise when the final rating came in and Attica took out 73rd spot.
“It’s been totally overwhelming really,” he says. “People mention it when they ring to book and one in four customers will say congratulations. That’s really huge and I just had no idea. I mean we knew we were on the list somewhere between number 51 and 100 [there’s a confidential letter that alerts you to that] but we didn’t know the actual placing until the results were published on the website. That’s when we knew we were number 73.”
But even then it didn’t quite hit home.
“I’d just assumed we’d be around the 90 mark or something. I’m pretty pessimistic, so it didn’t really have an impact at first.”
Not everyone was so complacent about the rating however, and that was when the phone started to ring. By the time Shewry got to work that morning there were over 70 messages on the phone and more people trying to get through.
“The phone just kept ringing. We had three people doing nothing for two weeks but answer the phone, and we couldn’t even get to the first messages because the phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” he laughs. But the reality of the situation and the great honour of being included on the list eventually dawned on Shewry when he went to talk to the team that helped him build Attica into the acclaimed dinning establishment that it is.
“I was walking up to the kitchen and this wave of emotion just hit me,” he says, the great intensity of that moment still written all over his face. “It was really full on. Just to see those guys and to see the work they’ve done, it was just amazing and I actually started to cry.”
It’s testament to the fact that Shewry and his team put their heart and souls into the food they prepare and that it’s a relief when the hard work pays off. But the real question is: once you’ve reached the dizzying heights of the world’s top 100, what’s next? Is it hard to get back to business without such accolades affecting you? Particularly when you’re the only restaurant in your city that makes the list at all?
“I never really thought about being the only Melbourne restaurant on the list,” Shewry notes. “I guess I just thought it’s amazing to be one of four restaurants listed in Australia. And those other three restaurants really deserve to be there,” he says in reference to Sydney’s Marque, Quay and Tetsuya’s. “We just try to keep things on the low-down here; we feel that to learn we just have to remain humble. If you start thinking that you’re something special or that you’re world-class, it stunts your learning capacity and we’re really interested in learning. That’s what our focus is.”
At the end of the day Shewry insists that he doesn’t work with awards in mind.
“I just aspire to have a distinctive style, to be known for really good quality and integrity. That’s what’s important to me.”
Though even the unassuming Shewry admits that it’s almost impossible not to hope that Attica will be listed again in the future.
“Of course I think it would be great. I actually think it would be hard, emotionally, to be dropped. I was speaking to someone who’s much higher up on the list than us and he was saying that the pressure of being dropped [from the list] would break his heart. I’d have to agree; it would break your heart. But I don’t really want to think about it. It’s all so subjective.”
He smiles quietly. “We just always work our hardest – and you can’t count your chickens before they hatch. We just hope for the best.”
And Shewry is very clear that no matter how great the accolade, no award will ever shape his vision.
“I’m not scared,” he says decidedly. “I’m not afraid to change things at all – and I never have been. It’s a lesson that I learned studying great chefs when I was younger, and feeling like their menus weren’t changing enough. But I won’t change anything until I’m ready, nobody will pressure me to do it. When something is ready, then it will come on.”
As one of the 800 odd judges on the panel, Shewry explains exactly how it works: judges are afforded five votes – three local votes and two international votes, and they must have eaten at the restaurant voted for in the last 18 months. You never know when judges are in the house (how could you with 800 of them lurking world wide), and it’s unlikely that you’d be able to identify all of them anyway.
“It’s judged on the total experience. A great restaurant is the sum of its parts. It’s not just about the food. There have to be people who can explain it to you in an elegant manner, serve the things that need to be served and all those little things that go into a great experience. But the food must be exceptional.”
And for Shewry there’s just one last factor.
“Humility. I like humility in restaurants too, that’s important.” Coming from a man so humble in the face of such an accolade, you’d have to believe him.