Ben Shewry, the chef of Attica in Melbourne, is boring by globally lauded chef standards. His food is thrilling—delicious first and interesting second. He understands and utilizes native Australian ingredients and tradition as well or better than most Aussies. (He grew up on a rough-and- tumble sheep farm on New Zealand’s severely beautiful North Island.) He’s well steeped in the history of cooking and is universally revered by his chef peers. But when I visited him recently, we spent most of our time at his son’s basketball games, practicing basketball in the front yard, playing with his daugters, and surfing with his local friends—a tax accountant and a surf-shop owner.
The suburban life he’s carved out for himself and his family is intentionally quiet. He lives far away from his restaurant, in a sleepy beach hamlet called Ocean Grove. He doesn’t really drink. He doesn’t suffer wastefulness or recklessness. He’s chosen to be a dad and a chef, and to try not to allow one to prevent the other. Many male cooks will tell you that the reason there aren’t more female chefs is that women have to raise children. But after spending time with Shewry, I realize that this is a self-incriminating line of logic.
I don’t have kids, so I’m in no position to say that Ben is a model father, or an example for cook-dads. He’s away a lot, at the restaurant or traveling to chef events. But when I speak to him about being a parent, I can see that he’s trying, and that when he falls short as a father, he suffers.
I admire this. And what I can say after spending time with him is that if motherhood makes it difficult for women to be chefs, fatherhood should make it just as difficult for men. Over the course of a few days spent exploring the suburbs and driving back and forth from his son’s basketball games, Shewry spoke to me about what it means for him to be a chef and a father. —Chris Ying
I started coaching my son Kobe’s basketball team the same way most people start coaching their kid’s team: nobody else wanted to do it, or nobody else knew how to do it.
At first, I was very insecure about it. It was a completely new set of skills to organize and teach and control eight six-year-old boys. Now I understand that there’s a crossover between coaching and running a kitchen, but there didn’t seem to be any in the beginning. I’d played basketball in high school, but I was no expert and I certainly wasn’t a superstar player. Just because you can play basketball doesn’t really mean that you understand the game. Just because you cook, doesn’t mean that you understand the process of cooking, or that you can be a chef.
I did the best I could. I read everything I could. For a lot of coaches, their first resource is to go online, but it’s a completely hopeless resource. The best way to learn how to coach is to be around other coaches and see how they do it. After struggling for a while, we realized the kids needed to practice, not just to play games. Practice was even more terrifying than the games because at least in the game, the kids are focused on trying to win. But in practice, there’s no winning or losing. It’s just like, “Well, what are we here for? What do you want us to do?” And they’re all saying, “I wanna go climb that tree… I wanna go to the toilet… I wanna have a drink… I hurt myself… I don’t want to play, I want to sit over there and cry…”
I’m fortunate that every one of the kids is fantastic. But initially, I didn’t know any of them except my son and maybe his best mate. Part of being a great coach or boss is building a relationship, a rapport with your staff or a rapport with your children. Once they trust you and they see that you have faith in them, then you can move forward.
Nowadays, the most nervous I feel in my life is when those kids go to play. I used to get nervous about, say, cooking for a food critic, but now I feel more comfortable doing it. When I’m driving to the stadium on Wednesday night, I get butterflies in my stomach. And when they win, there’s no better feeling than that—tears almost well up in my eyes. They’re so blissfully happy. And they’re great kids when they lose, too—they’re not bad sports. They take it on the chin and during practice we’ll talk about what went wrong.
My mom took care of my sisters and me when we were little, but once we were a little older, she went back to work as a schoolteacher. She wouldn’t get home until about five p.m., so dinner responsibility would fall to my dad, who would have been on the farm working the whole day. Most of the time, what we ate came out of the freezer, some beast my dad had killed—a cow, a wild pig, a lamb.
He’d shoot the animal, hang it from a tree or a front-end loader or tractor, bleed it, skin it, gut it, and then break it down on his own. He’s skilled, but sometimes the butchery was a little rough—he’d leave a main artery or something that a professional would definitely remove.
When my dad cooked, he usually cooked in the slow cooker— generally a barbaric kind of stew with some gnarly meat, just chucked in the cooker with water and vegetables, not fried off or anything. It wasn’t the worst thing but it wasn’t great.
One day, I accompanied him to a hillside about a two hours’ walk from the house, to help cut back a field of low-growing scrub bushes with chainsaws. It was brutally hard work. I was eight or nine at the time, and when lunchtime rolled around I was famished. I said, “Dad, I’m hungry.” He said, “Okay,” and sat down to pull lunch out of his backpack. Lunch was a loaf of bread and a raw brown onion. He sat there and peeled the onion with the knife he always had in his pocket, cut it into thick wedges, and put it between slices of bread with nothing else. I was horrified.
Another time, our water pump broke down and the two of us went out to work on it all day. About a week or ten days earlier we’d had a roast chicken for dinner, and the carcass had sat in the fridge ever since. My father wouldn’t throw any food away, ever. He’d never waste anything. When we sat down to have lunch, out of the bag came another brown onion, a loaf of bread, and the week-old chicken carcass. There was just a tiny bit of skin and gristle on it that he intended to tear off and gnaw on. I decided to make the twenty-minute walk back to our house and eat something else.
My dad actually loved food, but at that point in his life he was under a lot of stress from being a father and having to look after three kids and trying to run the business of the farm. I’m not sure people can really can cook anything great when they’re under a lot of pressure or if they’re unhappy.
My father sacrificed a lot of his own ambitions for us. He was a promising pilot and probably could have gone on to fly a commercial plane, but instead he bought a farm so he could provide us with a good, stable life. My parents gave me a good perspective on the world, too, because we traveled extensively before settling down on the farm—that’s something really unusual in the backcountry of New Zealand.
When my parents came to eat at Attica, it was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. I always felt blessed by my childhood, so when they came to see how I’ve done for myself, there was a lot of emotion attached to it. I worried that they might question the integrity of the experience, because they’re so good at seeing through bullshit. They have X-ray vision. When they come to the restaurant, it forces me to question how articulate my expression is. I want them to be proud of me. I know they’ll like the food, but I want to show them that I grew up and did something with all the opportunities they gave me.
DAD COOKING 2.0
My youngest daughter Ruby hasn’t eaten at the restaurant, but when Attica was more casual and we lived near the restaurant, Kobe and Ella would come in and have dinner with me before service. Kobe’s eaten the full degustation twice now. He eats everything, which is quite amazing, because he won’t always eat everything at home. He really loves it. After the last meal he said to me, “Dad, your restaurant is really great for a restaurant that doesn’t have a hamburger on the menu.”
At least twice a week, I cook for my family. One of the saddest things about chefs is that often they don’t want to cook at home. The most beautiful food you cook should be for your family. But the truth about being a chef is that the most beautiful food you cook is for other people, and that your whole life is based around trying to make other people happy, not your family. That’s something I’m aware of, and so it’s important for me to cook at home. It’s a bit easier for me to get the children to eat different food than it is for my wife, Natalia. She does a really great job of cooking for our family, but whenever I cook something they feel more compelled to eat it because I’m not around as much, and they know I’m more of the disciplinarian, the sterner one.
A little restaurant like Attica that makes about 3 percent profit can only pay me so much, and it’s not that much. The restaurant is just barely sustainable now, so I don’t want to rock the boat too much; I would rather have another member in the kitchen than a bigger wage, because that would make the food better. So you sacrifice a little bit.
I could be making three times the amount I’m making working for some soulless corporation, but I didn’t have much as a child and I was happy. My parents provided an immense amount in terms of spirit and education and love, but I didn’t have many material things. My children have far more material things than I had. So for myself, the financial aspect of having a family and being a chef is only a concern from the practical point of view. We’ll be sending our kids to a school that is actually very cheap, but it’s still a lot of money for us. There will come a time when my business partner and I will have to figure out how I can make a bit more. But I don’t want to be wealthy. I won’t be wealthy. I don’t imagine in my life that I’ll become wealthy.
I was quite a mature twenty-three-year-old. I got drunk and did all the girls stuff when I was fourteen or fifteen. By the time I was eighteen or nineteen, I was well over that. I met Natalia when I was nineteen and she was the first girl that I ever loved. We got engaged two years later at twenty-one and married at twenty-three. The week we got back from our honeymoon she dropped it on me: I want a baby now.
I said, “My god. I’m twenty-three, I can’t have a baby now. No way.” It was probably the only disagreement we ever had. We made a deal that we’d have a baby when I was twenty-seven. As a cook, I think it’s best to have kids early in your career. I would rather have been through what I went through when the children were young. If they had been ten, eleven, twelve, or in those critical stages around high school, and I wasn’t around a lot, I think it would have made more of a difference. When they’re babies, Mom’s the one that’s generally more important than Dad. Dad’s important, but they look to their mother when they’re little.
So as planned, we had our son Kobe when I was twenty-seven. It was a frustrating time in my career. I worked in one of the best restaurants in Melbourne at the time as chef de partie, and felt like I was always overlooked for positions because I didn’t speak up much. I had good technical skills but wasn’t much of a leader. When Kobe was born, I didn’t feel like cooking at all.
I resented the hours—something I’d never felt before. I had been in the kitchen for thirteen years, working eighty hours a week. But something changed in me after that. I have a lot of empathy for cooks who have families. I would leave my house at seven in the morning, and my kids wouldn’t see me again until they woke up around six the next day. In a normal week, for four or five of the days, they’d get to see me for forty-five minutes a day. That’s not enough for a father to be around.
When you’re a cook and have a child for the first time, you just want to stay at home all the time and be with your wife and kid and not work those hours. I took three weeks off, but I think anyone having a baby should take off a minimum of a month to get your head around having a child, and to support your wife.
When Kobe was born, Natalia had an emergency caesarian and was under general anesthesia. I was sitting outside and couldn’t go in. I thought we were having a baby girl, but then they brought the baby out to me while Natalia was still unconscious, and it was a boy. He was screaming and screaming; I tried to stick my finger in his mouth to calm him down.
We didn’t get any sleep for the first three or four months. It was really rough from the start. I took three weeks off, then came back and worked a week. Things weren’t good at home so I took another week off.
We get four weeks of paid leave per year in Australia, and you can use it whenever you want. I know it’s less in America, and it’s so sad. It’s just not enough time for you and your partner. The second and third times, you know what to expect, but the first time it’s outright terrifying—everybody is scared shitless. You need that time to learn how to be a parent.
Peter Gunn, my junior sous, is having a baby in a month. He came to me and said he’d like two weeks off. I said, “There is just no way that you’re going to cope with just two weeks off; you need a month minimum.” I told him that after that, if he wanted to come back and tell me he needed more time, he could take as much as he needed. Come back when you’re ready to work again. You’re going to go through a lot of changes.
After Kobe was born I felt a strong shift in myself; my focus changed completely. That was the original motivation for opening Attica: wanting to do something to make my son proud of his dad. It was kind of a macho thing. I wanted to prove my worth to my child and show that I could provide for my family. Natalia had to stay home with the baby, and we had no family in Australia. I was earning $600 a week and our rent was taking half of that. We had nothing.
I accepted a job to cook at this traditional pub in Richmond. I was going to cook chips, burgers, lasagna, parmesana (chicken schnitzel with a slice of ham, a slice of tomato, tomato sauce, and cheese grilled on top)—the pub staples of Australia. This guy was going to pay me $800 a week, and I felt like I had to take that job.
That same week, there was a job advertised in the paper for head chef of a restaurant called Attica. Natalia, Kobe, and I would pass by the restaurant sometimes when we walked the dog. It was always dead and there was never anyone in there. The place looked like it had good bones but no soul. I decided I’d go for the position at Attica instead of the pub. I took over about a month later. I remember writing the menu every night until midnight or two a.m. with Kobe in my arms while Natalia slept.
Opening Attica was hard on Kobe and Natalia. Financially, we had a little respite—we weren’t wealthy but we could pay the rent and we had food to eat. But I was a little possessed in those early days and months. I only had one other staff member, my best friend and sous chef, Jason Chong. I don’t really remember a lot of Kobe’s early childhood, which is sad. I was almost sick, working myself into a zombie state. I felt nauseous every morning, as if I were seasick.
I worked so hard during those eight months that my fingers constantly started bleeding underneath my nails. We didn’t have a kitchen hand or enough pots and pans. We would cook a dish and serve it, but we’d need a hot pan for the next round, so we’d have to scrub the pan then put it back on the stove. We were cooking frantically, and the menu was very ambitious and labor intensive. I did this dish called “A Monk’s Offering,” which was twenty- seven Thai dishes on a platter for $70 for two people. Twenty-seven different preparations that I made from scratch every day. After five days, Jason said, “We can’t work any more than we are and you’re doing twenty-seven dishes for one dish—you have to cut that crap out.” So I took the dish off the menu. People used to laugh at us, especially other chefs. They looked forward to hearing stupid stories about what we were doing in the beginning.
I felt that I was just doing what I needed for our family to survive. If I failed at being a head chef this first time, I probably wouldn’t get a second chance. A lot of guys come up and if they don’t make a good impression with media, critics, and customers off the bat, it’s very hard for them to get another shot.
We hadn’t been going long when the first really serious food critic came in. Two weeks later, the night before his review came out, Kobe got gastroenteritis. He ended up in the children’s hospital. Natalia and I were both sleeping in the hospital with him. Then Natalia caught what Kobe had, and then I got it at five a.m. I was supposed to start work at nine, but of course I couldn’t work.
Fortunately, in those days we were serving two people for dinner, or none. Jason and a friend of mine covered for me. I left Kobe and Natalia at the hospital because there was no point in all three of us being there.
I went home to try to recover so I could return to work. I drove home at six in the morning, totally on edge, wondering if I would vomit in the car. I pulled into a service station knowing that they’d have the paper. I bought a copy, set it on the passenger seat, and started driving again. This was crucial: the biggest guy in Australia reviewing us, the make-or-break review. I turned the page to the review, and glanced over and saw the score was sixteen out of twenty—a really high score for a first-time head chef at a nothing restaurant. I didn’t even read the review and I didn’t even smile. I was just so fucking ill. I went home and slept, and ten hours later I went back to pick up Natalia and Kobe from the hospital.
ON LIVING IN THE ’BURBS
Shewry and his family live an hour and a half away from the restaurant; he drives back and forth for service most nights.
The main reason why I wanted to move so far from the restaurant was that I wanted a different quality of life than the city could provide. I wanted a little bit more of the lifestyle that I had when I was a child living in the backcountry. I don’t like the attention that my job brings either. In the city, it was easy for people to get ahold of me if they wanted to do a photo shoot or interview or sell me something. Being out in Ocean Grove, it’s not so easy. Your days off can be your days off.
That said, I want the kids to learn how to cook for themselves. I want to teach them about the ethics of ingredients, and how to choose what’s good—what’s a sometimes food and what’s a regular food. That’s not so easy in Ocean Grove, so we’re lucky to have an apartment in Melbourne. They normally come once every three weeks. The whole family stays upstairs above Attica and might eat some food from the restaurant. The next day we might go to one of the Chinatowns or to Springvale to walk around Little Saigon. It’s just completely different food from where they’re living, which is more whitebread.
My father was incredibly responsible, temperate, gentle, articulate, and hard working. He’s a beautiful person. That’s where I come from. Little boys look up to their dads, and I’m no different. My dad didn’t go to the pub. He seldom ever drank to excess. The only time I remember him being drunk was at his fortieth birthday. And I didn’t even see him drunk; he was just hungover the next day.
A lot of young people back home would go out and get absolutely blind drunk, and I just found that kind of sad. Plus, when I started in the industry, I didn’t want to be a cliché: he’s a chef and chefs get shit-faced. I never wanted to be like that. I always felt that that would hold me back from what my true goal was—being really good at cooking. I don’t frown upon anyone who lives like that; I just live the life I do.
I’m happy to have a beer or a glass of wine. But if I’m doing wine pairings I hardly ever drink all the wine. I’ll taste it. I had an incredible meal at the Fat Duck recently, and they had a really grand wine tasting. I was embarrassed at how much wine I wasted. They were pouring some beautiful and expensive wines for us, and they were all delicious. But I would just have a sip of each one, even though they were only doing half pours for me.
I’m not a teetotaler, but I have a lot going on. If I have half a dozen drinks tonight, I still have to get up at six tomorrow. I find it hard to focus and function after I’ve been drinking—around kids, especially. Kids are hyper. They seek your attention. If I was hungover, I don’t know how I could do it. I literally don’t know how people live like that. I can’t. You must be made of tough stuff if you can drink, and raise children, and be a chef, and commute.
REALIZING WHAT MATTERS
Being named on San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants list for the first time brought a lot of stress. And around that time I had some staff that were poisoning the restaurant. There were a couple that were just feeding off each other with their incredible negativity. They were like a little seed that was planted into the restaurant that grew into this disgusting, vile plant. I was also having a hard time with my business partner. Every partnership has ups and downs, and we were going through a down period and weren’t communicating very well. On top of it all, I was beginning to feel that I was away from my family too much.
My work suffered. I tried to conceal it the best I could, but it’s really impossible to cook beautifully when you’re miserable. I wasn’t even aware of how unhappy I was. I didn’t understand that I was suffering from depression. Up until then, I had never had a whole day in my life that I felt unhappy. Not like this. Sure, if your grandmother dies, it’s horrible, but it passes. This was different. This wasn’t passing. This was here every moment that I was awake.
At home, I was disconnected from my family. I was with them, but I wasn’t really there. I was a zombie. I was distancing myself from my wife. I didn’t want to burden her with my problems, because she already had her hands full trying to raise three children. She could tell that something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to communicate it in a way that wouldn’t burden her. I would lose my temper and yell a little more at the kids than I would have liked to. When they talked to me, I wouldn’t know what they were saying.
At Christmas every year, we close the restaurant for three weeks. Every day of that year’s holiday, I said to myself that I didn’t want to go back to the restaurant. I wanted to throw away everything I had worked so hard for. I got very animated and irrational, describing it to my friends and swearing and cursing about it: “I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough. Fuck this, I’m gonna quit. I’m going to go work at a catering place.” I didn’t want to deal with media, my business partner, the majority of my staff. What was the point of success if I couldn’t even enjoy it, or stand it for that matter?
Then one day, I was talking to our seafood supplier, Jason. We were having problems with the quality of our mussels—he was bringing them in from different people every day. The quality would vary dramatically, so I told him to send me a few mussels from each supplier. One variety stood out and so I asked if we could go and see the grower.
On the day we arranged to visit the farm, Jason was going to pick me up from my house. I was at a low point. I remember knowing that he was going to come at eight in the morning, but I just lay there in bed thinking, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to go. I’m not going to answer the door. But my guilt got the best of me; Jason had taken out time from his holiday with his own children to take me to the farm, so I got up and got in the car with him and we drove down to Portarlington where the farm was. Lance, the farmer, took us out on the bay and told us about how his father had taught him to farm and how they had been doing it for thirty years. He told us about three years prior, when a draught had raised the salinity of the coastal waters, and how overnight their industry was almost ruined. They had previously used wild mussels to stock the farm, but the wild mussels had stopped spawning when the draught hit.
I took a lot of spirit from that visit with him and Jason, and I realized that I had to make changes in my life and the restaurant.
Not long after that, Jason passed away—far too young. He left two beautiful boys and a young wife. There were some parallels between our lives—we both worked brutally hard. Jason worked like a maniac. It made me appreciate my own situation, and compelled me to make the best of what I had. I patched things up with my business partner and our relationship became stronger than ever, because we went through that struggle. I could have quit, and I almost did. I came so close.
The problem couple left the restaurant a little bit later, and it was like the storm clouds cleared and the sun started to shine into our kitchen.
Everybody blossomed. I realized this funk that had affected me was also affecting the entire staff. I realized I needed to be a much stronger leader and a stronger manager, and truer to myself and what I wanted—both at work and at home.
The role of a successful chef— or a chef that’s perceived as successful—has changed quite dramatically. The generation before me didn’t travel nearly as much; they didn’t have the opportunity. All the events and symposiums are a relatively new phenomenon. If I wanted to, I could travel every week of the year, but I travel maybe five times a year.
I travel out of respect for the organizers. I can’t even say that it’s good for business, because often I’m a bloody thirty-hour flight away from the event. Usually I go out of loyalty or when I know there’s an audience who’ll appreciate my story. I do it for selfish reasons, too. I get to see my friends and explore other cultures. But it’s really taxing on my children and my wife. Luckily Natalia wants me to do whatever makes me happy and doesn’t question my decisions. I could be away for one week or two weeks while she’s with the kids twenty-four hours a day with no help. She’s the one who holds the family together. I know a lot of other guys’ wives complain constantly about the travel and don’t want them to go. I never have to check or really run anything by Natalia.
I do try to be super selective about where I travel. I know a chef who’s only at his restaurant—and therefore only home—one out of every four weeks. He makes it his priority to travel because that’s what he believes will bring publicity to his restaurant. For me, that’s madness. You burn the candle at both ends. That means you’re home for only three months of the year.
The longest I’ve ever been away is two weeks. I had a trip out to America and that was too long. The problem is when you come home, your children disconnect from you. They’ve moved on with their lives. They’re playing basketball, they’re dancing, they’re busy at school. They have a life too.
The little one, Ruby, is only three years old, and a lot changes in her life in two weeks. She develops, she learns new words, she’s slightly more articulate. Things change. Behavioral things change. And they happen because I’m not there, as well. Kobe could be a bit more emotional than normal or a bit more hard work for Natalia because I’m not there. Then when I get back, I’ve got to try and fit back into the family routine, and sometimes the kids are not all that receptive. I could be sitting on the couch with the three of them reading, and one might say they’re hungry and not think to ask me to get them food. They’ll ask Natalia, who could be in another room. They don’t think to ask me because I’m not around.
Then on the opposite side is what you notice when you spend a lot of time with them. Recently, we took a family holiday for the first time in eight years. We spent twenty-four hours a day together for seven days, and I did whatever they wanted at any time of the day. If they wanted to go to the beach and go bodyboarding, we went bodyboarding. If they wanted to go for a swim in the pool for three hours, we went. If they wanted to have an ice cream, we had ice cream. They got to make their own decisions about my time with them.
Then they got on a plane and flew home, and I got in the car and drove twenty-six hours home. When I got home, they were the most excited they’ve ever been. I can go away to America for two weeks and not get the same reaction. It was because I spent so much time with them in that week. It’s kind of distressing and upsetting on some levels. But it’s also good because it makes you aware how your presence as their father enriches their lives and how much they need you. I’ve always had a strong conscience about it.
My family, believe it or not, is number one—not the restaurant. If they’re sick or they need me, I’ll always come home. It has to be that way.