Ben Shewry is a passionate guy. It’s part of what makes his fine dining restaurant Attica one of the most highly regarded and awarded restaurants in the world. Part of how he turned something as simple as a potato into his signature dish “A Simple Dish Of Potato Cooked In The Earth It Was Grown IN.” And part of how, during the pandemic he took to delivering lasagna to keep his team employed.
He attacks everything with passion. Even his house.
If you talk to Ben for a while, you’ll get a sense that there are four main passions that swirl around. There’s food, obviously – he’s one of the world’s best chefs. Then there’s music – he personally curates the playlists that diners at Attica hear. Then there’s art – Attica collaborates with local artists to deck out their space. And finally, there’s bikes. Off The Front spoke to Ben about how those four passions intersect.
Let’s start with food, because Ben is, after all, one of the world’s most highly regarded chefs. His restaurant Attica started as a friendly neighbourhood restaurant in 2005, but quickly started getting a reputation for its innovative use of simple and indigenous ingredients, like that potato dish, or his Ant Lamington (look it up). It’s been in the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list for over a decade. Shewry even had his own episode in the Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’.
But then the pandemic hit and Attica had to close doors. “Any of that stuff in the past, all of the awards, accolades, the adulation, the customers, the money, it’s all gone overnight. It’s just gone,” says Shewry. The pandemic saw Shewry transform Attica from a $330 per person set menu restaurant (before booze) to a delivery service selling $30 lasagnas, a cake stall selling $7 slices of cheesecake, and a summer camp at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Shewry is the first to admit that they weren’t good at all of it. “We sucked at it so badly. But thank fuck we stayed in it and we got better. It’s a positive thing to be so humbled in a way that you’re so inadequate at what you’re doing and you know it.”
And they did get better, and kept their workforce employed by selling 8661 lasagnas, thousands more takeaway degustations, cakes and loaves of bread. Oh, and 15,000 t-shirts. And in the process, they connected with sections of the community who couldn’t normally afford a $330 dinner.
Shewry can’t help but get emotional describing one woman who used her last paycheck to buy a piece of $7 cheesecake after losing her job to the pandemic. “That really meant something to me,” says Shewry. “More than a $330 spend. It’s never really about money for me. It’s always been about that connection to other people and what you can create when good people come to your business and good people work in your business and you’re trying to create something that’s fun and energetic.”
And what about food for riding? What foods go with bikes? “All foods go with riding,” Ben laughs. “That’s the beauty of riding.” So while riding 5 days a week allows Ben to eat his own lasagna, he’s a big believer in eating clean. “If you’re really serious about cycling and you want to go faster and feel better on the bike, then the number one way for you to do that is by cooking for yourself and taking responsibility for what you’re putting into your body.” And he’s a fan of the cycling classics. “I still think a banana is one of the best things for me,” he says.
When Shewry landed in Melbourne in 2002, his first job was at a cafe owned by a road cycling obsessive. “Every Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, Tour of Spain the place would be filled with all of his cyclist friends. There was a Pinarello bike hanging up in the bar. There was always just cycling people coming around.” They mocked Ben as a mountain biker with hairy legs. So, finding himself in a city with such a great road cycling culture, Shewry picked up a $300 Repco from the classifieds and started training on Melbourne’s notorious Beach Road. In secret.
After three months, he casually dropped it to his boss that he’d bought a bike. He instantly asked Shewry out for a ride, hoping to teach him a thing or two. But those three months training, and a lifetime of mountain biking meant that Shewry could keep up, even over cobbled sections of the ride. “I remember coming off the front and being able to stay on the front or ride away from them, and they were so pissed off. He knew that I’d been training,” Shewry laughs. You don’t get to be one of the best chefs in the world without being a little competitive.
Riding has gone in and out of Ben’s life since, but came back in a big way a few years ago after retired pro rider Simon Gerrans had dinner at Attica, and invited Ben for a ride. That ride turned into a weekly event and he’s currently riding five days a week. You won’t catch him on Strava though, Shewry is not one for trackers. “I never know how far I’m riding. I ride for time and effort and for fun. So I might do a two-hour ride, I might do a one-hour ride, I might ride to the Dandenongs from home in Elwood. I don’t really care.”
Conversations with Ben often come back to music. He’s got a poster of John Dwyer from US indie act Thee Oh Sees on his office wall and he meticulously collates the playlist for Attica’s dining room (they’re also public - search them on Spotify). And we’re not talking about easy listening restaurant jazz, either. New Zealand indie act The Clean might segue into The Ramones, then Parquet Courts, then Colombian singer and songwriter Helena del Pilar. And that passion for music also bleeds into his riding. He listens to music on his solo rides, but it’s not aggressive hard trance or black metal that power his rides. He listens to an eclectic mix of music when he rides, including a new playlist he calls ‘Sad Bastard Music.’ “It’s just a bunch of sorrowful fucking people that just sing sad fucking songs, just the saddest-ass, fucking heartbreak and shit,” Shewry says. So if someone flies past you on Beach Road blasting Elliott Smith, it’s probably Shewry.
So where does art come into it? Well, it comes to life in Ben’s new home, a mid-century architectural masterpiece designed by its previous owner, Dr. Ernest Fooks. Ben is painstakingly restoring the heritage-listed house, and it’s no mean feat. There are something like 350 light switches, and fun little features like automatically closing curtains and a drop-down screen for Dr Fooks’ regular slide shows. It’s a work of art, but it’s also a feat of engineering. “He did 83 drawings of the house when he was planning it, even drawing the terrazzo floor. Every piece of terrazzo had to be in a specific position. He was a very detail-oriented person and I really admire that.”
Art also comes to life in Ben’s other passion, a bike build he’s doing on a Colnago C59 that he bought for cheap on eBay. He calls it the ‘Fucked Up Colnago’ and it looks, shall we say, distinctive. “For the most part, bikes look boring to me,” Ben says. For the paint job, he was inspired by Melbourne artists Rone and Ash Keating, who use colour in a washed-out way. “I wanted to paint it like a watercolour painting, like an abstract watercolour painting. But that paint’s not going to hold up to the rigours of riding, so I had to paint it in oil. And I clearly can’t oil paint it in a watercolour way. So it’s an experimental paint job, to say the least.”
So beyond bike builds and reopening Attica in it’s familiar fine dining guise, how does he feel about what’s coming down the line for him in these unprecedented times? “I guess I’m just feeling like ‘bring it on’ a little bit. Whatever it’ll be, it’ll be. And I just try to accept whatever it’ll be pretty early and not get down about it because that’s not helpful. It’s been a long couple of years.”