The Australian - Wish Magazine
Attica’s chef branches out
A t Attica, the food is arguably a form of art. The nation’s top finedining eatery has featured on lists of the world’s best restaurants for a decade and is known for its masterful $310 tasting menu crafted by chef and owner Ben Shewry. But since COVID19 closed the restaurant’s doors, Shewry has turned into a fullblown artist, venturing into the world of clothing design, acting, videomaking and even guitarplaying. And all this extraordinary creativity is just to keep his business going and his staff employed.
“One man, one tasting menu, one song, one unforgettable night,” the Melbournebased Shewry wrote on Instagram in June when he offered a performance to one lucky customer who ordered his famous tasting menu for home delivery. “Are chefs really rock stars? I’m three weeks into learning guitar,” he wrote. “I only know one song and I’m no longer allowed to play that song at home or work, so for one night only I am hitting the road.”
In another post, he acts in a video for a collaboration with Lune Croissanterie in Fitzroy to create a takehome “pastry pudding you never knew you wanted” called DAVE – a croissant cake with candied native fruits, apples, brown sugar and custard. Shewry hilariously wears a stocking over his head like a cat burglar, breaks into Lune’s headquarters, does some somersaults to avoid being seen, and steals the pastry to make his mouthwatering creation like a mad scientist. “DAVE IS COMING,” he proclaims.
Shewry and his team have even made a priceless television infomercial – “But wait, there’s more!!” – to promote the Attica Art Series Tshirts, which feature local artists. The awardwinning chef is seen using the Tshirts to polish gearboxes and golf clubs, and even takes to karatechopping a tomato with his bare hands.
“I have tried to defuse the madness of this situation COVID19] with humour and trying to have a good time,” he says. “Also just taking stock that this period is incredibly hard on so many people and I am trying to live life each day to its fullest; that is my motto anyway.”
Behind the humour is a dedicated and passionate chef trying to save his livelihood. The dining room of Attica has been shut since early March and Shewry doesn’t see it reopening soon. “Restrictions on numbers in dining rooms are a real issue,” he says. “Attica only works financially as a full restaurant five nights a week. And the other longterm thing is that we have people flying in from all over the world just to come to Attica. They are about 15 per cent of our guests and they are not going to come back for some time. An economy in recession is also an issue for highlevel restaurants.”
When social distancing restrictions were announced, Shewry recalls he had one day where he thought he was going to lose everything. It was his 43rd birthday and it was just after the Victorian Government called off the Grand Prix. But by the next day he and his partner, Kylie Staddon, Attica’s operations manager, decided to go into work and try to come up with ways to survive.
“We were terrified, in all honesty, but I was even more terrified of what was going to happen to all my staff,” he tells WISH over the phone from Melbourne. “They had put their faith in us and put their faith in our company; how were they going to survive if Attica failed? We had a lot of visa workers here and there was no safety net, so going broke was not an option. And I also wanted to save my company that I had worked my entire career for. My entire life was dedicated to becoming a chef and being good at this and I couldn’t believe that I was going to lose it. I felt strongly about coming out of this better than we went into it, and maybe being more interesting for more people.”
Shewry did this by launching Attica At Home. But it was not like anything Atticagoers had ever seen before. It started with a simple family meal of lasagne, bread and salad available for pick up or delivery by staff to suburbs near the Ripponlea eatery. “The first thing on the menu was $30 per person and the Attica menu is normally $310 a person, so it was quite a drastic change,” he says. “But you have to read the room and know what people want [ at the time] and it wasn’t the $310 tasting menu.”
The lasagne took off and Shewry and his staff introduced other dinner menus as the weeks went by, and then finally the full Attica tasting experience (at $380 for two people).
There is also DAVE, which “sells out immediately every day” and other sweets such as a celebration cake, ice cream (jellybean flavour with soft raspberry marshmallow) and Shewry’s baked cheesecake. One very dedicated customer even paid for somebody to drive the aforementioned cheesecake all the way up the Hume from Melbourne to Sydney so that his dear interstate friend could experience it. “Isn’t that extraordinary?” says Shewry. “It’s pretty next level.”
The chef is not sure what will happen over the next few months, but he is certain about one thing: Attica will never return to just being an ultimate finedining experience. It is so much more than that now.
“The other side of it [ COVID19] is being able to flex our creativity in different ways that we couldn’t before because it didn’t fit into our very square box that Attica defined itself by in being a finedining restaurant,” Shewry explains. “We have discovered a whole new audience that has always wanted to come to Attica for our food but haven’t been able to afford it, and it’s been amazing engaging with these people. They have been there for us in our time of need and we want to be there for them when this is over and done with, so we still want to keep that part [ Attica at Home] of our business.”