Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 1, Episode 5 - Ben Shewry - full transcript

An interview with Ben Shewry and a look at his restaurant Attica in Australia.

[Ben] It's hard to imagine
how I decided to become a chef at all.

Growing up in New Zealand in 1982,

we don't have chefs on television,

we don't have articles written
in magazines about chefs,

we don't have columns in newspapers
written about food even.

I grew up in this
tiny, little isolated community

with hardly any neighbors.

Well, the nearest neighbor
was a 15-minute drive away.

When you don't have video games,

and you don't have proper television
until you're 10 years old,

you have to find all these other things
to give you joy and to be creative.

When I was 14,

I got a job in a small place
run by a brother and sister,

called the Time Out Cafe.

From the little cutout
in the wall of the kitchen,

I could see into the dining room,

and I could see
the customers eat my food.

It was the most incredible feeling.

I was hooked.

[opening theme playing]

[train approaching]

[Tony] I can remember
the first time when I went to Attica.

It was like trying to, sort of, work out
what is so special about the place.

It's not glamorous.

Every once in a while,
you can hear the neighborhood bus

literally, sort of, driving by.

And to eat in a place
that is world-class,

you expect something that's
a little bit more like Hollywood.

Attica is a small restaurant.
It's not an expensive restaurant.

It's in a suburban part of Melbourne,

on, you know,
the wrong side of the world.

[chef 1] There are three pork,
one chicken, two fish, then...

[chef 2] Twenty-seven, pork, one chicken.

[chef 1] Have one chicken ready?
[chef 3] Ready.

[Matt] It's small, it's dark.

You kind of go,
"Wait a second,

this shouldn't be a...
top 50 restaurant in the world."

Five potato.

Four egg, please, Danny.

Can we get some slightly
larger bowls, please, Danny?

[Danny] Yeah.

[Matt] You look at Ben,
he's not your celebrity chef,

your supermodel-dating,

leather jacket-wearing chef.

Question that's asked,

"Is this small restaurant as good
as the best restaurants in the world?"

And the answer is, for me,

Attica would be
one of 20 restaurants

that I would travel to visit
if I didn't live here.

But you know what? I live here.
It's round the corner.

I'm very proud of what it does.

[Tony] You walk inside the dining room,
everything is focused on the table,

the light shines on the food.

It's pure theater.

The butter arrives,
then the bread arrives,

and then before you know it,

it's like a total seduction of courses
after courses after courses.

Eating there is like
looking at somebody

who has put his soul
into the food.

It plays tricks on your palate
in the nicest possible way.

A chef these days has gotta be
so much more than a cook.

They've gotta use color,
language, images, emotion,

in order to animate
what's on the plate.

And as a writer,

my job is to try and find people
who are saying something different,

who've got something to say.

You look at what
makes Ben's food special,

there's a history, there's a story,

there's a relevance,
there's a sense of place.

[Matt] So, Pete,
this is gonna be our bowl

that we wanna make it look as if it...

was just, kind of, cut from the field.

So, you want that dew
on those leaves here,

but we don't want it in the center

where it can dilute
the cabbage too much, all right?

Okay, so, we put these back in here

like it was never disturbed.

This gets carried out.

We put that straight
on the table, like that.

And then those two bowls come out,

but we'd have to decide
on which we prefer out of those two.

At Attica, we only want to do things
that are true to ourselves.

I had these cabbages

and then I had these
feelings around Bolognese.

It was a family dish growing up.

I wanted to use
that kind of technique

of making a Bolognese
to make something new

that didn't actually relate
to Bolognese in any way,

but still made me
feel kind of good.

You start by making a Bolognese,

and then, that doesn't really work.

It's not refined enough,
it's not delicious enough,

and then Pete says,
"Well, why don't we press the Bolognese

and just use
the juice of the Bolognese?"

And this happens organically.

We're not trying to replicate
our mother's cuisine,

but there's something
that is soulful and is fulfilling.

That's what I'm trying to get at.

I'm trying to take people
back to those times in their life

where people who loved them

cooked for them in a way
which was really meaningful,

and really satisfying for them.

When I first moved to Australia,

everywhere I looked, there was
influences of different countries.

And when I looked at a restaurant
and I saw a risotto on the menu,

it didn't invoke
a sense of Australia in me.

And that's one of the reasons why

we started working with
native ingredients of Australia.

Most people have never heard of

99.9% of these ingredients.

These are just things that are
totally unfamiliar to the general public.

Australia has this hidden paint box
of new flavors to play with.

What's fascinating about
watching chefs like Ben is

there's a hunger, a desire,

to try and find ways of turning them
into a gastronomic culinary experience.

[Ben] When we're working
with the native ingredients,

they're very hard to harness.

There's no information
on the Internet about them,

there's no books that
have recipes using them.

When you're developing a dish
like the kangaroo dish,

you wanna take it and work with it
as many ways as possible.

Over that time,

whether it be three months
or two years,

you're always thinking,
"One day, I'm gonna unlock

the greatness of that ingredient.

I'm gonna find the most delicious

and most natural way
of cooking with it."

This is an important part
of our country's heritage.

Australians should have a sense
of pride in these ingredients,

they should know
what they taste like.

Because the connection
to your roots

is really one of the most
important things of all.

Growing up in New Zealand,

we were given incredible
freedom from our parents.

Their great gift to us
was a sense of self-belief

and their time,

which is the most valuable thing
that you can give a child, is time.

As kids, we had
these amazing adventures.

When I was eight years old
and my sister, Tess, was six,

we tramped two hours
from our house by ourselves,

into the native bush.

We walked to this hut
and we camped there the night.

We understood which plants
that you could eat in the bush.

We picked wild berries,
and we picked blackberries,

and we fished
for eels in the stream.

We did so many amazing things.

While we never felt rich in money,

we were rich in family spirit,
and we were always rich in food.

There was hangis
being held on our farm,

organized by my uncles
and my mom and dad.

When you dig a pit
and build a fire

and put these
ingredients into the earth,

and then 12 hours later,
to dig them up,

and they've been transformed...

That's a really amazing thing

to share with people
that you love and your friends.

On the farm,
you're in never any doubt

where food comes from
and the connection of it.

There's one incident,

where we'd gone to the coast
to harvest shellfish for a family meal.

You walk through
this very old tunnel,

and it opens up
into this cove.

There's no people around to speak of.

Two sets of fathers and sons
had drowned at the spot,

so it's a dangerous place to swim.

I was offshore,
maybe 100 meters.

I'd swum out to a reef
with a lot of mussels on it.

My family was playing on the shore,

and I had my back to the sea.

And a big wave came in
and it knocked me over,

and it dragged me
across the reef.

I came up for air,
and another wave hit me.

And it pushed me down again
and it bashed me.

I came up again
and a third wave had come,

and it held me down.

And I was drowning.

I do remember the feeling
of being held down.

I remember how lonely I was.
You know, like--

And how lost I was
and how upset I was

about how this was gonna be the end,
you know?

And my father,
who was always my great hero,

he swam in and saved me.

That's the thing about my dad,
he was always watching us.

[Natalia] Who's that?


And... shall we see
if we can find Daddy?

[gasps] Who's that?

-[Natalia] Daddy!

[Ben] When I was 27 years old,
I was working as a cook.

My wife and I had had a baby,

and my wage was not
enough to support my family.

And so, I needed
to find a head chef's job.

I lived in the same
neighborhood as Attica.

I used to walk past
the front of the restaurant

and think that it had good bones,
but no soul.

I applied for the job
and got it.

I probably thought it was gonna be

a little bit more glossy
than it was in reality.

I didn't actually...

realize the financial state
of Attica at that point.

We owed $150,000
to our suppliers.

We had to get credit cards
and max them out to pay for things.

And it didn't have any customers.

In the early days, it was pretty intense
'cause he was so focused.

Work started at, like,
maybe at 7:00 in the morning.

And we'd go hardcore all day,

just be ready by 6:00,
and then doors were open,

and no one would show up.

We didn't have enough pots or pans.

We would cook a table of four,
we would use all the pots.

And then they would go into the sink

and we'd have to quickly scrub them
to cook the next round.

After about eight months of putting
my hands raw into the water,

my fingers began
to bleed under the nails.

I remember going to the doctor,

and she said, "You've got to stop
and have three months off."

I said, "Three months?" I said,
"I can't even take three hours off."

[Natalia] I don't know whether he had

a set idea on what he thought
the restaurant should be,

what it needed to be.

It just hadn't been
successful before that.

So, I think he definitely
felt the pressure

of having to make it successful.

[Ben] It just took forever
to build momentum

because we were
a two-year-old restaurant

which everybody hated.

So, we had to turn around that.

I was a young chef,
had a young family,

and we were struggling
to make ends meet.

And if you're a young chef,

and you don't succeed the first time,
it's hard to get a second chance.

Tuesdays are different at Attica.

It's an experimental day.

It was conceived because,
at the beginning,

we didn't have a test kitchen,

and we had to find a way to experiment

so that we could develop
our cuisine faster

and more passionately.

[chef 1] Could someone grab
some tea towels, please?

[chef 2] Yes.

[Ben] The night before, I stay up late
after my children have gone to bed,

and I write the menu

based on anything that comes
into my head that I want to do.

Today, we're gonna start
with the mussels and boab.

[Boyle] Tuesdays are pretty crazy,
to be honest.

Pretty much just due to the fact
that us chefs, besides Ben,

don't really know the menu
until the morning we come in.

I want to make a cream from garlic
that we cook down in oil.

Then we're gonna grate
raw portabella mushroom

over the top of that.

[Tony] As a diner
on experimental Tuesdays,

you are literally in the hands
of the gods, put it that way.

Because you just don't
know what you're getting.

Then we wanna do a dish
of Western Australian marron.

We've killed the marron to order
by brain-spiking it.

Let's get started.

Ben's experimental Tuesdays
have been a smart idea.

It's like, well,
you need to develop stuff up,

and you need guinea pigs.

So, why not pick
your quietest night of the week,

and invite people in
at a cheaper rate

to see things in progress,
to understand dishes?

And you'll see dishes that are...

disastrous and will never
see the light of day,

and you'll also see dishes that
will become a signature on the menu.

What I like about Tuesdays is

that you really see the workings
of a real creative person.

It's probably the closest you get
to how his mind works.

[Ben] Get the vinegar straight
on the mussels, okay?

Or should the saltbush
go on top of the cheese?

[Pete] Yeah.
[Ben] I think it should, eh?



Just take it off
and put the saltbush on.

I think this is gonna taste nice,
but to be completely honest with you,

I don't really like it
when I get a dish

which I can't see what it is.

If you're being
honest with yourself,

you've never cooked
any of these things before,

and it's difficult to cook them well
for 55 people on the first night.

You're just having to make
split-second decisions

and hoping that
they're the right ones.

I actually don't like
what I just did then.

I liked it before it was
covered with butter.

[Matt] I think what's interesting about

the experimentation
in top restaurants is,

it's always there on the menu.

It just depends
how you do the fine-tuning.

And with a small restaurant like Attica,

you don't have the financial luxury

of 70 people working all the time,
just fine-tuning a sauce.

That doesn't happen.

[Amin] Until about 5:00, 5:30, 6:00,

I'm still thinking,
"What's the dish gonna be like?"

Go for it.

How is it?

[Ben] What do you think?

[Durga] Before he tells us
what he feels, he'll ask us,

"What do you think about the dish?"

And it's nice to know that,

even us, who with the hierarchy
of the kitchen,

we're at the bottom,
he'll still want to know our opinion.

[chef 1] How'd that go?

[chef 2] Tamarillo is a lot nicer.

[Pete] Yeah. I feel like they need
a touch of salt, or something?

Couldn't hurt. Couldn't hurt.

I think it's pretty well balanced
apart from that.

-All right, let's move on.
-All right.

[Ben] Almost needs a spoon, eh?

When I'm tasting things
for the first time,

I'm looking for something
that I have never had before.

Then I'm looking for... simpler things
like the balance of the ingredients.

Maybe the vinegar's too strong.

You'll have a plate in front of you,
and it's not right,

and you're just trying
to grab that thing

that's gonna bring
everything together

that you haven't thought of before.

And I'm thinking
right back to the beginning

of my first earliest memories
of cooking when I was five.

And all of that experience cooking,

through childhood
right up until now, 38 years,

everything that you ate
as a human being

make up your memory palate.

[Ben] Once you have a really good range
of different styles and experiences,

you always have that to draw on,

and just subconsciously
almost knowing

what works and what doesn't work.

There's quite a bit of acid
in the sauce already, eh? So...

Yeah, yeah.

I think it's more like
a little drop on each mussel.

Or maybe it's not even the vinegar,

maybe it's a drop of lemon,
like you suggested.

If it was a little more cooked,

it would be a little more clean tasting,
a touch.

Each week,
each year that goes on,

you're gaining confidence,
and your vision becomes clearer.

And so, over nine years...

that vision has got to the point
where it's quite focused.

[Matt] There's a real interest
in the ways chefs work.

And so often, development is

carried out now in laboratories
by chefs in a closed-off world,

and I think people want to...

get a real sense of how
the creative process works.

To be able to go down
on a Tuesday every month

and see new things

that you may then be able to spot

further on down the track,
it's kind of cool.

[Ben] For me, it's always
about wanting to get better.

There's a feeling of elation
when you create something new.

It's greater than almost
any sensation in your life.

[Ben] So, I've ordered the marron.
[chef] Yeah.

I haven't ordered the chicken thigh

because it was just 1.5 kilos
that I was needing.

-Just go out to Solomon's.

Green wattle, 'cause I couldn't
remember if we had any or not.

-We do have green wattle.

-Twelve hundred of the wild flowers.

[Ben] And I've ordered sandpaper figs.
[chef] Cool.

[Matt] I think it's important to know
that Ben didn't spring

fully-formed from the womb
as a super-chef.

When he first started at Attica,
it wasn't particularly auspicious.

And the early
Ben Shewry menus were...

a million miles
from what he does now.

[Ben] When I started at Attica,
I didn't feel, at the point,

that I had a culinary identity.

Before the restaurant opened,

I dreamed up of all the things that
I would like to eat at a restaurant.

Thai dishes, European dishes,
dishes from mentors.

Three pork, away!

[chef] Three?

[Ben] Three pork, one chicken,
is that what we're doing?

[chef] Yes.

[Ben] And we were running around,
trying to cook this food,

had no idea what we were doing.

[Ben] Picking up.
[waiter] Pick up, Chef.

[Ben] Around that first week,

we had a table come in
and have a look at the menu,

and turned to the waiter
after reading it and said,

"Whoever wrote this fucking menu
must be on speed."

And I thought,
"My God, what have I done?

I've created some kind of monster
which everybody's hating."

That week, on a Saturday,
we might have done 18.

On a Tuesday, a table of eight,
then the next night, a table of four.

We sit 55, so...

we were going backwards.

There's a romantic story
that says people are just creative

because that's what they like to do,

and they just go around
all the time creating.

Which is just
kind of ridiculous in a way.

Sometimes people have to create
out of pure necessity.

If I didn't create stuff
that was inspiring to people,

and that people didn't like,
we were going to go broke.

I was in a place of frustration

because nobody cared
about the restaurant

and it didn't have any customers.

It made me sad.

And it made me mad as well.

And I realized at that point,

that that was not the future for me,

cooking Thai food
or cooking European food.

The future for me was trying
to develop my own voice in cooking.

I wanted to create something
that was meaningful to me.

I started looking back on my life

and I remembered that time
that I nearly drowned.

I thought at the time that,
you know,

that people were creating dishes
with seafood elements and stuff,

but none of them
really invoked in me

a strong sense of the sea.

Not many people know the feeling
of nearly drowning, either.

Having saltwater
stuffed down your throat

and up in your nose,

and being held under
by a force far greater than you.

So, I wanted to create a dish
which invoked that sensation

in somebody who was eating it,
you know?

Which is kind of macabre.

I went down to the beach
and there was a boat ramp,

and the sea was really wild,

it was like churning
and carrying on,

it was dark and gray,
and it was raining.

And this little wave
lapped up the boat ramp

and then it dispersed.

And what it left was the tiniest,

tiniest, tiniest bit
of bright green seaweed.

And I was like,
"Oh, my God, look at that!"

And I ran down the boat ramp
and I picked it up.

I started looking around.
"Well, there's one thing that's edible.

And there must be other things,
you know?"

So, I started looking
and I started trying,

and I started tasting,
and all of a sudden,

I'd discovered, like,
six things in this one area.

And they all become ingredients
on this dish Sea Tastes.

It was the first moment
of creating something myself

that wasn't like other things
that other people were creating.

It was the first time I was really
proud of something that I'd cooked...

that wasn't a knockoff.

[Ben] How far is the cabbage, Matty?
[Boyle] It's ready to go.

[Ben] It's ready to go?
[Boyle] Yeah.

[Ben] Obviously, if we're working
over here, Matty,

you need to bring the garnishes
over here in future.

Yes, Chef.

[Ben] As a young cook,

I was the one
in the back of the kitchen

doing all of my mise en place,

and then moving
on to some unrelated project

to try to blow
everybody away with it.

And often, that work
goes unrecognized.

I wasn't satisfied with that.

My ambition was really strong

and it was based around becoming
a new father for the first time.

And I had this little baby,
and my dad had been my great hero.

And I suppose I wanted my son
to feel that way about his dad.

I was super ambitious
for recognition,

ambitious to win awards.

You say to yourself,

"I'm gonna do everything I can
within my power

to make something of myself."

I was like a rabid dog
that just wanted to achieve so much.

This table of four came in,

they asked the waiter
if I could go and see them at the table.

I thought, "Oh, my God,
here I go again.

This time I'm gonna cop it
face-to-face from them."

And they said to me,

"No matter what you do,
don't ever change.

And stay true to yourself."

I thought, "If there's one table
that likes it, there will be others."

We'd won awards.

It made the restaurant busy
for a little while.

And then winter would come,
and the restaurant was dead again.

If you're a very driven person
and you want to achieve a lot,

there's a point where
you can hurt a lot of people.

Running a restaurant becomes your life.

It's not a normal eight-hour shift,

it's a 24-hour-a-day job.

Children need support
and they need to be around their parents.

And I wasn't there
in those early years, you know?

And it's--
And it cuts me to say that.

My father had been a promising pilot.

He gave away many of the things

that he probably wanted
to really do professionally

to create a wonderful environment
for his children.

The way he worked was brutal,
to say the least.

On the side of hills, cutting scrub,
just for hours and hours.

He would cut hundreds of acres of scrub.

I've never seen anybody
work that hard to this day.

And the whole time,

Dad would work like that
with a smile on his face.

My mother, too.
She was working incredibly hard,

so they both were
a really strong team.

They just did the best they could
by their family.

They made the right decisions.

I didn't appreciate my childhood

until I started raising
my own children,

and I realized how hard that is,

and how well my parents had done.

-[Ben] Have some orange juice, kids?
-Okay, thank you.

[Ruby] Is that healthy one?

Everything's healthy, a little bit.
A little bit, okay?

[Ella] Thank you.

[Ben] At around the fourth year,

I was still working too many hours,
and I wasn't seeing my children.

[Ruby] Ella! It tastes different.

It came to a point where
it all compounded on me.

[Natalia] What's Poppy gonna have?

Poppy's gonna have... a pikelet.

-Is he gonna have anything on it?
-No, nothing.

[Ben] When I was at home,
I mean, I was a full-on zombie.

I would be sitting with my kids,

they would be talking to me,
and I wouldn't be hearing them.

I disconnected from my wife.

And I was resenting my work,
which I'd never really felt before.

You realize that there are some
things that are not right in your life.

And you start reflecting on them,

and start wondering,
"Is it worth it?

Is it really worth it, what I'm doing?"
You know?

Around that time,
we began working on this mussel dish,

and a friend of mine
and I had arranged

to go to Portarlington
where the mussel farm is.

We met Lance,
and Lance told me his story.

He told us how
when he was a young man like me,

this entire industry had faced extinction.

He'd worked so much

that he'd missed
a lot of his children's childhood...

and it really struck a chord with me.

It made me realize I was wasting
a significant part of my life

and I had to change.

Four years ago, my son, Kobe,
formed a basketball team

with his friends from kindergarten,
called the Red Dragons.

[Ben] First season, I don't know
if I saw a game at all.

[boy] Take him on!

[Ben] Couldn't get away from work.

I took a night off to go
and watch a game and I was like,

"Wow, Kobe's got natural ability at this."

Other parents went as well,
but they didn't have a coach,

so somebody was just
subbing them on and off.

And then,
I ended up as the coach.

Good passing, boys.

It'd just become
this huge thing in my life.

[Ben] Three.
[boy] Six.

[Ben] Set, go.

After that, it became so important

to be able to feel joy
outside of the restaurant,

outside of cooking.

I'd lost some of that somehow.

[Tony] If there's anything to describe

what Ben is giving
to the rest of the world,

I think he is giving a lot of himself.

There is a part of Ben
that is in all those dishes.

His food is like an emotional response
to moments in his life.

I can remember, there was one dish
which blew my mind.

It was his well and
truly documented dish,

the potato that's cooked
in the earth where it comes from.

And it's just nothing but a potato.

But it's the best, best potato
you have ever, ever eaten in your life!

And you could almost genuflect at somebody

who has made the humble potato
into an edible piece of art.

After that, there was
this underground current

that ran around,
talking about this young man

doing really, very experimental stuff.

[Natalia] When he first used to start
getting reviews,

I used to go and get
two copies of everything.

I would cut one out
and I would laminate it to keep it.

I think we always thought
that we'd get a few

and then that would be...

That would be all it would be.

We don't do that anymore.

[Ben] The first time we ever came
into World's 50 Best

was just one
of the craziest days ever.

We had three phone lines
and they were just jammed.

The website crashed.

It's such a funny situation
to find yourself in,

when you went
from having no customers

to having far more
than you would ever need, you know?

[Matt] When you look
at the most exciting

restaurants in the world at the moment,

they're not in Paris and London.

They are hidden away.
You've gotta make the effort.

If you're doing something unique,

you're doing something wonderful,
people will find out about it.

I suppose there's a bit of fairy tale
about it, isn't there?

If you look at Attica
2005, 2009, 2014, 2015,

it's always better.

Every meal is always tastier
and more interesting.

That's what it's about.

[Beethoven's Symphony No. 7,
Op. 92 playing]


[Ben] Kobe!

Kobe! Dinner time!

There's a saying, if you've done
a hangi with a stranger,

that you've pretty much bonded for life,

'cause it's such a difficult
and painful thing to do.

When I was younger,

I was very interested in trying
to achieve a certain level of success,

winning a lot of awards,

and reaching a level of recognition
from my peers.

Get your corner
and we'll lift it up like that.

-One, two...
-Yeah, that'll do it. Come on.

Chuck that!

[all laughing]

As you grow older,

you realize that the things
that really matter to you are

your friends and your family.

It doesn't matter to them

whether or not my restaurant's
ranked number 33 in the world.

They only care, really,
if I'm a decent human being,

and that I treat
my children and my wife

and my family and
my friends with respect.

-Is everyone ready to eat?
-[all] Yep.

Go. Grab a plate.

Food shouldn't be some
sort of artistic torture.

It's gotta be something uplifting,
and fulfilling and delicious.

And it should invigorate people.

But if you're not happy with your life,

then how can you possibly achieve that?

People can't create anything
truly significant in food

unless they're happy when they do it.

[closing theme playing]