It’s late on a Tuesday night on the top-right tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Ben Shewry, chef and owner of Melbourne’s Attica, stands waist deep in the ocean off Cloudy Bay. With him is Ian Morden, estate director of the bay’s eponymous winery. Morden looks at his watch, brow slightly furrowed, as one of this hemisphere’s most interesting chefs wades further out into the black sea, hunting crustaceans. It’s near midnight. It’s not that Morden is worried about Shewry, he knows the chef is a surfer and can look after himself, but he’s in the country for just 72 hours, and every one of those hours is packed. Shewry keeps moving, barely visible as he disappears and reappears behind small swells.
The chef is here for Forage, a Cloudy Bay event celebrating the winery's surroundings, and the produce which makes its way both into the glass and onto a plate.
With a kitchen team of two brought from Melbourne, Shewry will create an eight-course degustation with ingredients sourced entirely in Marlborough, the South Island’s famed wine producing region. Although a New Zealand native, Shewry is not familiar with the flora and fauna of this part of the country. The next two days will be all the time he has to source and plan a meal using ingredients he may never have come across before.
“To me it’s not scary, new ingredients,” he tells us later. “I’ll cook with anything I have. It’s just about taming them, and not serving them for the sake of it.”
It’s an offhand line, and no doubt Shewry has developed a few to help those who turn up at his restaurant door with notebooks and cameras, hoping to convey a little of Attica’s deliberate magic.
Speak with Shewry for any length of time and you begin to understand how unique his background is among the world of elite, experimental chefs in 2016. “We had to pick things from the farm, things from the bush, things from the coast. That’s how we sustained ourselves,” he explains, of his upbringing. “My dad picked up this knowledge the same place I did: from his father and from the community he lived in, in 1940s and ’50s rural New Zealand. Harder times than I grew up with, and I grew up with hard times as well. The ’80s and ’90s weren’t great for dry-stock farmers. There was no money. We were happy, but we didn’t have things wealthy people had. We had other things.” Shewry pauses.
“My parents set me up to succeed without ever intending to. Foraging wasn’t a trendy thing, it wasn’t based on trying to impress guests at my restaurant or anything like that. Money was tight and food was free in the wild, and it seemed like folly to avoid it.
“I left the farm in my late twenties, solely focused on my career, and forgot a little bit of the soul of that,” he continues. “When I started at Attica I felt there was a lot of sameness – everyone was doing amazing Australian-fusion food, but I wasn’t good at any of that, and I didn’t want to do it. I returned to the very early lessons I learnt on the farm.”
It’s natural his background informs his cooking, but how it ended up manifesting itself in the dishes produced at Attica is something that can’t be explained so easily.
“For the last seven or eight years we’ve done an experimental menu on Tuesdays, so I feel more confident and comfortable cooking in a style like this” – he gestures to the table at which he’s just served his Cloudy Bay meal – “than other people who may have more strict guidelines, or more of a foundation, to their cooking. It’s not right or wrong. Some people have 50 dishes they’ll bring back according to seasons, and that doesn’t interest me. I feel if I did that I wouldn’t be evolving. I like being in a situation like this, where I want to do something good for Cloudy Bay who are hosting me, and I want to give people a memory they won’t forget in a hurry, whether it is a good one or slightly bad one. Just not vanilla, you know?”
Vanilla. It’s not a word that could possibly make its way into any description of the meal we’ve just eaten. After one of the Cloudy Bay team killed a wild deer the day before, Shewry asked for its blood. Hearing the animal had already been hung, he improvised a dressing for venison carpaccio using blood plums and beetroot. An exciting, locally-produced fermented brown-rice miso made its way into the dish (“exciting due to how rare it is to find it outside Japan”), along with the leaves of the native koa koa plant, “Because if I was the venison, that’s what I’d be eating.”
At the other end of the meal, dessert is a raw Jersey milk sorbet, just sugar and milk, served with six different varieties of those local plums.
Shewry is a sought-after interview subject, partly because writing about his food is a less-daunting prospect when you have his thoughts to guide you. “It’s more about not damaging someone else’s products,” he says, searching for an answer that will satisfy yet another hapless reporter. “And if you’re going to kill something, if you’re going to take something to eat, you want to do it justice.”
As for any chef with his status, Shewry could spend the entire year circling the globe, but to do so would be to compromise his vision for Attica, which he now owns outright with his wife, Natalia.
“With the exception of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, which I spent one day in London for, I haven’t travelled at all in the past year,” he says. “There’s a team of incredibly gifted young people who are putting everything they have into making Attica happen on a daily basis. I’m the compass, or something, the creative director or whatever silly phrase you want to use, but they can definitely do it without me. So I haven’t left in the past year not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to … I like to be there because it can’t stop evolving. If I’m not there, the creative process kind of stops.
“When I was a young cook, the people I looked up to the most continued that drive for a long time,” he says. “Anybody can do something in their life at a high level for two or three years, but to work at a high level for 10 years, or 20 or 30, that’s a completely different thing.”
This determination helps explain why Shewry said yes to this trip when he’s turned down a dozen others. The opportunity to use new ingredients, and perhaps happen upon something genuinely new, doesn’t come up every day.
“To not make food the same as everybody else, sure,” Shewry says. “But that’s never been the mission statement. It’s always just to make food that represents me.”