Ben Shewry’s 43rd birthday was the worst day of his life. It was March 15, a Sunday, and the COVID-19 pandemic was tightening its grip on the nation. If the widespread rumours were true, the chef’s agenda-setting restaurant, Attica, would be forced to close its doors to customers within days.
The fine diner, which sits alongside a coin laundromat and a kosher caterer on a quaintly untrendy shopping strip in Melbourne’s south-east, had spent more than a decade winning accolades for its wildly inventive food, from three hats in The Good Food Guide to a spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The mandatory $310-a-person tasting menu traversed a landscape of native Australian ingredients – a deliciously familiar Vegemite scroll spiked with miso and black garlic; a possum sausage sandwich; crocodile ribs – and bookings for the 62-head venue were routinely snapped up three months in advance. But now the lights were going out.
“I could just see the tidal wave coming, and I knew that we would go broke,” Shewry says. “We couldn’t operate the business the way we had done for 15 years, as a restaurant … we were just bleeding money, pouring out of all the windows and all the doors.”
An estimated 441,000 Australian hospitality jobs vanished virtually overnight, with an April IBISWorld report, Failure to Lunch, predicting a 25.1 per cent decline in revenue for Australian restaurants in 2019-20: $5 billion wiped from the bottom line. Shewry felt like he had been socked in the guts, and spent the rest of his birthday at home wallowing in self-pity.
By the following day, however, the New Zealand-born restaurateur had dusted himself off and begun the task of trying to save his livelihood and the jobs of his 38 full-time staff. With his operations manager Kylie Staddon, who is also his girlfriend of nearly two years, within a week he’d launched the online “Attica At Home” menu. It included some of his greatest hits, many of which had been booted from the restaurant menu for being too popular: a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown, a spiced brick of lamb shoulder, the Plight of the Bees dessert (a delicate trifle of fennel ice and honey curd), all packaged in containers to be delivered, ready to eat, to diners with ruthlessly high expectations.
The first night did not go well – some food arrived late or cold. Customers complained. Shewry pulled into the driveway of the restaurant after making his final delivery feeling defeated.
“I’d been up for 22 or 23 hours that day, working nonstop,” Shewry recalls. “Kylie and I pulled up out the back here just despairing, sitting in the car together in silence. I felt like I was having my heart torn out by what we were doing, and I was just so disappointed in my performance, in our performance. She started crying and I started to cry. And that seems like a bloody lifetime ago.”
Soon after, an email arrived from his friend, American investment entrepreneur Bruce Dunlevie, whose San Francisco-based venture capital firm Benchmark was an early investor in little ventures such as eBay, Twitter and Uber. Shewry had met Dunlevie at the restaurant long before the coronavirus hit.
“He sent me an email that said, ‘Remain positive at all times and all costs, you’ll get through it if you remain positive.’ And I thought, ‘That’s it!’ That’s how he got through the hard times. And that’s how I’m going to do it.”
Almost eight weeks later, Ben Shewry stands in the middle of Attica’s dining room dressed head to toe in black. He has a youthful presence, wiry and compact with a flop of dark hair and a relaxed, friendly face which belies his years toiling in the kitchen. The tables are pushed back, hip-hop blares on the stereo, and stacks of custom-made ceramic plates are piled, now unused, on the carpet. There are also eskies, boxes of T-shirts, blenders, buckets, crates and chaos on every surface, as if they’re in the middle of moving during a tax audit.
This is the staff room of Attica 2.0, which has gone from hosting the world’s most devoted foodies to delivering lasagnes, selling elaborate cakes, making emergency soup for unemployed overseas workers, hosting Instagram demonstrations and any number of other wild new schemes Shewry can think of.
He’s never worked harder than these past few months, clocking over 120 hours a week and sleeping a handful of hours each night as he keeps the business running in between myriad side hustles. “I have at least 1000 ideas in my mind, and 100 written down in notes [on my phone], and 20 that I’m working on at once.”
Just before 5pm, Shewry packs the boot of his red Porsche Macan SUV with the first of the night’s deliveries. He’s a little sheepish about the extravagance of his luxury car, which he purchased last year after he was released from an ambassadorial role with rival marque Lexus. He was going to sell it but his accountant advised against the almost certain financial hit. And, he loves the thing. “I tell my kids [Kobe, 15, Ella, 13, and Ruby, 10] that this car is their brother,” Shewry jokes. “I say, ‘Be nice to your brother,’ it’s like the fourth child.”
We drive down a narrow alleyway in Balaclava to the door of a sleek townhouse and deliver a $95 Attica Modern package for two, which features a saltbush kangaroo tartare and a rich chocolate cake. The glam young mother with a baby on her hip recognises the delivery boy. “I’m starstruck,” she gasps. Shewry smiles, leaves the package on the ground with a small bow and backs away. “Thanks for your support,” he says. At the next address, a gym-buffed man cracks open his apartment door and scowls as he picks up his $60 lasagne, salad and garlic bread (the Family Meal for two). He appears to have no idea the man in front of him is one of the most famous chefs in the country.
Shewry insists this personalised service is not for the benefit of Good Weekend. “Initially I would need to do the deliveries every night,” he explains. “Now if somebody is sick or we don’t have enough drivers, I do it. That’s my reality: every second or third night, every week, I’m out here.”
Shewry has taken on 10 extra casual staff from other restaurants to cope with demand since the crisis began, and has thus far not applied for the federal government’s JobKeeper assistance. “I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams being able to give anyone a job at the start of this [pandemic],” he says.
Delivering meals six nights a week is a logistical nightmare, with the decision made early on to bypass commission-hungry delivery apps in lieu of establishing Attica’s own in-house online ordering system. It charges $15 per delivery within a 10-kilometre radius and each night has an average of nine cars on the road, driven (when not by Shewry himself) by crisply uniformed waiters using their own vehicles, making up to 100 deliveries per night.
“It’s not a profitable thing at all,” Shewry insists. “We’ll try to survive on selling the food, and the delivery is a way to keep people busy and help pay their wages.”
There are now 17 different food and beverage options on the Attica At Home menu, from the relatively budget-friendly (in Attica terms) lasagne to a 10-course, $380 two-person dégustation featuring hand-picked crab, carrots with pepperberry and Daintree chocolate with quandongs, plus matched drinks: cocktails, two half-bottles of wine and sake.
“I will say I’m not losing money right now,” says Shewry, while politely declining to reveal specifics on Attica’s revenue before and after shutdown. “You can’t employ more people when you’re losing money. Whether or not it’s profitable across the next few months remains to be seen.”
The next day, a rainy Friday, he gathers his staff in the dining room for a briefing. There’s Martina from Italy, Phil from Denmark, Mark from the UK and head chef Matt Boyle, one of only two Australian-born chefs out of 23 in the kitchen.
In order to be hired at Attica, candidates must pass a final interview with Shewry. “I say, ‘There’s really only one rule here, and that’s that you never bring in a bad attitude with you to work,’ ” he says. “To me, that’s sulking, shrugging your shoulders, talking back, being mean, being selfish, not working hard. That’s a bad attitude. Then I say …” – Shewry pauses and lowers his voice, revealing that he can be quite intimidating if he wants – “I say, ‘If you come here, can you promise to me that you won’t have any negative attitude?’ If they say to me, ‘Yes,’ then I say, ‘Excellent. I will remember this conversation. And if I ever see the slightest bit of negative attitude, we’ll be having another conversation.’ ”
In April, Shewry launched the Attica Soup Project with food journalist (and Good Weekend contributor) Dani Valent, using funds raised from the sale of a $25 chicken broth on the delivery menu to provide free meals for overseas hospitality workers on temporary visas. Each Wednesday morning at 5am (one of the rare times the kitchen is empty), he and Valent cook up vast pots of warming soup – Thai pumpkin, say, or potato gorgonzola – for those struggling without government assistance. “It’s about connecting people to get a good result for somebody who needs a leg-up,” Shewry says.
“I think you should just always do things without any expectation that you get anything in return. It’s the best way to live, and you can never be disappointed.”
Far from the trope of the angry, prima donna chef, Shewry seems a genuinely nice guy. He loves listening to music, and has 600 vinyl records and 1400 CDs that don’t get listened to nearly enough at his house in nearby Elwood. He owns a very beautiful stereo. He doesn’t really drink – maybe one or two glasses of good wine a week. He’s a mad fan of the cartoon cat Garfield (which accounts for his love of lasagne). He adores basketball. He just bought a guitar, and his son Kobe (named after the late American hoops star Kobe Bryant) is teaching him how to play (he only knows one song, Zombie by The Cranberries).
He’s still got his Kiwi passport and is not an Australian citizen, but is stuck hard on his new home town. “It’s a sophisticated community in Melbourne – they know quality, and I want to live in a community that knows quality. It’s a privilege to live here.”
Ben Shewry was born in Waitara, New Zealand, and grew up in a happy nuclear family on a remote sheep and cattle farm in north Taranaki with father, Rob, a farmer; mother, Kaye, a teacher at the tiny local school; and younger sisters Tess and Tamie. From the age of 14, he took a string of jobs cooking in pubs and cafes, and met his now ex-wife Natalia making baked hams and jelly at a buffet restaurant in a New Plymouth hotel.
With his fine-dining ambition burning, he and Natalia moved to Melbourne in 2002, where Shewry worked as a pastry chef at upscale restaurant Luxe, then landed a six-week training stint alongside Thai master David Thompson in London later that year. Luxe went bust, and in 2003 he moved to a job as a junior sous chef at Circa restaurant in St Kilda, which was at the top of its game under head chef Andrew McConnell, who went on to open city stalwarts Cutler & Co, Cumulus Inc. and Supernormal. Also in the kitchen at the time were chefs David Moyle, Daniel Southern, Philippa Sibley and Matt Wilkinson, who would each make their mark on the local dining scene.
In 2005, Shewry landed the top job cooking at Attica, then a struggling restaurant in neighbouring Ripponlea owned by emergency room doctor David Maccora and his wife Helen. The restaurant had churned through two head chefs in quick succession and was opening to a handful of diners each night. In a few short years, Shewry transformed Attica from middling local to dining destination, racking up accolades for his inventive, personal dishes.
In order to transition from employee to owner, Shewry saved $40,000 for a deposit on a house and bought a modest place for $340,000 down the coast in Ocean Grove, a punishing two-hour drive from the restaurant. The property doubled in value, and he used the equity to leverage a loan to purchase Attica in 2015. He’s now the sole owner of the business, though he still leases the building, a former bank, and rents his house in Elwood.
Behind the scenes, things came close to unravelling. Shewry says he very nearly “threw it all away” in 2009, when he became gripped by “circumstantial depression”. While there were times when he could barely get out of bed, he hid his condition from those closest to him.
“I came from a background of people, especially in a farming background in a rural environment, when a person suffering from depression is definitely seen as damaged goods,” he says.“You didn’t ask for help, you just stuck it out. It feels like a very male thing as well. It’s insidious, hey Depression.”
Shewry says he recovered by reconnecting with the simple things in life: surfing, fishing, family. “I’ve described it simply as the storm clouds opened and the sun started to shine again,” he says. “Seeing the world around you is very important for perspective. I thoroughly believe in the sentiment that someone has always got it worse than you have.”
Before the pandemic, the hardest thing Shewry had been through was a divorce. His marriage to Natalia fell apart in 2017. “Any person who’s been through that, especially with kids, will tell you that it is brutal,” he says. “Even when it’s two good people, it’s not easy on children, it’s not easy on parents.”
During the split, Shewry began experiencing bouts of anxiety, which he was able to manage by seeing a psychologist for the first time. And then, a “silver lining”: Shewry began a relationship with Staddon, who had been working at Attica since 2014. “I had this rule: I don’t want my staff to date each other, because that’s led to problems in the past … so I kinda broke my own rule when Kylie and I got together,” Shewry says. “I really got married too young – but I have no regrets at all in my life. I have three beautiful children, and a much better relationship [with Natalia] now. The mother of my children is a really great mum, and the kids are so engaged, passionate, thoughtful, and just a joy.”
Shewry describes Staddon as “the unsung hero and the logistical mastermind of Attica” and says they have no problem living and working together. “For a lot of people it wouldn’t work … being together 24 hours a day. But we can go eight hours in the same building, cooking and in the office, and not come into contact heaps,” he says. At the restaurant, it’s all business. “[Kylie] has very complementary skills to mine, and our way of thinking is very different. She’s quite a quiet person who wouldn’t put herself out there. We’ll go home, we might talk about work for two or three minutes, then no more.”
From the softly spoken Staddon’s perspective, it helps that Shewry doesn’t let small hurdles get in the way of the big picture. “My background in hospitality [at large pubs] was quite systems-driven, but Ben is just like, ‘We’re doing this!’, and we’re like, ‘Oh, okay,’ ” Staddon says. “Any time something goes wrong, we’re all devastated by it. It keeps us up at night, even the smallest things.”
Is the team as excited to make lasagne as they were about cooking Shewry’s elaborate, personal creations? Absolutely, she says. “The food is prepared in exactly the same way that it was before. We don’t think it’s a step down and we’re not reducing ourselves by doing this. We just think it’s cool that more people get to eat our food now.”
Instagram has become a guiding light for Ben Shewry in these COVID-19 times, during which he’s shared offbeat personal tales to his 110,000 followers with increasing candour.
“When I was 14, I was fired from a job as a baker at Woolworths Supermarket,” he posted on March 29 under a photo of two perfectly baked scrolls. “I couldn’t keep up with the amount of bread rolls that where [sic] required of the position … The experience of being fired knocked my confidence with bread most of my adult life.”
Shewry has also been broadcasting irreverent “cookalong” demonstrations on Instagram Live with celebrity friends such as comedian Hamish Blake and musician Briggs to keep fans entertained in lockdown. He even bought what he dubs “an influencer light”: a bright ring flash to shoot more attractive videos. “The thing is, I think the person that people now see publicly is, maybe for the first time, really me,” he says.
Blake first bonded with Shewry over a beer out the back of Attica in 2018. “I’d always thought that [the restaurant] would be a bit wanky, lots of foams,” says the comedian. “I was very wrong. I was so blown away by the food because it wasn’t a chef showing off for the sake of it. The ideas behind the food and the creativity were just as awesome as the flavour.”
Pat Nourse, creative director of The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, says Shewry has been a social media standout during the pandemic. “There have been a lot of laughs along the way in the middle of what, as a small-business owner, must be an absolutely terrifying period.”
Shewry has been shy of public attention in the past, and was reluctant to appear in the first series of Netflix’s ground-breaking series Chef’s Table in 2015, which garnered him fans around the world. “I didn’t want to do that, or be a part of that. I am quite a private person,” he says. “I just thought all food television was bullshit … but people don’t know the level of influence being on a Netflix show can have on your restaurant.”
There have been “not hundreds but thousands” of overseas diners who have built trips around eating at Attica. “They won’t book their flights until they have the restaurant booking,” Shewry says. “When they arrive, they tell you straight away, ‘We’ve come from Dallas,’ ‘We’ve come from Mexico City’ – they often bring gifts.” Attica is feeling the loss of such globe-trotting foodies, who made up about 15 per cent of diners.
“It is more exposed than other restaurants – that’s the blessing and the curse of being a destination dining hot spot,” says Nourse. “It’s great to be the kind of restaurant the people built a trip around, but when travel is restricted you’re at the mercy of that.”
“I could see all of these things I worked so hard for being stripped away from me overnight.”
Another powerful promoter has been the annual ranking of It hot spots, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which “demoted” Attica from the 20th best restaurant in the world in 2018 to 84th in 2019. The latest list, which should have been announced this month, has been postponed until at least next year. “I feel like the whole [awards] thing is a little phony,” Shewry says. “It’s probably influenced by my feelings at this moment, and the absence of support from organisations like those who have taken a lot from restaurants … The veneer which was so thin has just been completely stripped off. Awards just don’t matter to me at all.”
His former boss and now close friend Andrew McConnell says Shewry is setting the standard when it comes to saving a hospitality business. “Doing takeaway is a really challenging thing for a lot of chefs,” says McConnell, who turned his wine bar, Marion, into a pop-up bakery, and Supernormal into a delivery restaurant. “One thing chefs don’t like is compromise, but Ben has really been able to create and reinvent himself in a way where there is absolutely no compromise whatsoever. It’s quite inspiring for a lot of people to watch in the industry. It’s not going to beat him.”
Shewry calls the closure and rebranding of Attica a near-death experience. “This thing came out of the blue,” he says, his voice catching in his throat. “I could see all of these things I worked so hard for [being] stripped away from me overnight. And I felt angry, because I hadn’t brought it upon myself. I accept my own faults and my failings and if I had bankrupted my business through my own stupidity, you know, I’d wear that.”
Margins for restaurants have been whisper-thin for a while. “After the bushfires, there wasn’t a lot of buffer,” says Pat Nourse. “I don’t know a lot of people in hospitality who had a great year in 2019, either, so there’s not a lot of fat to ride this out.” Shewry’s pivot might be a role model for others but the chef warns against thinking he’s found a long-term solution. The idea of his changes representing success, he says, is “mostly to do with me staying positive, and less to do with us actually doing well. Because it’s very much a day-by-day proposition … and if people are only allowed back in restaurants in limited numbers, that doesn’t really help any restaurants.”
Hamish Blake says it’s Shewry’s capacity to care that will see him succeed. “Anyone who knows Ben knows he is an extremely caring guy,” says Blake. “He cares about food. He cares about his customers. He cares about his community. And he cares deeply about his staff and restaurant. If there’s been one good thing to come out of [the pandemic], it’s seeing people’s creativity in the face of adversity. This is a great example of it.”
As restrictions ease, Shewry doesn’t see Attica reopening in its former incarnation any time soon, perhaps ever. He wants to do a sit-down tasting menu again, but when there are no restrictions. (From June 1, Victorian venues have been able to seat up to 20 customers per dining space, allowing for one person every four square metres, and 1.5 metres between all seats.) “This restaurant needs to open to 62 customers, five nights a week, that’s the only way it’s viable,” he says. “It’s not even viable at 55 customers. And I wonder as well about the need for a tasting menu that’s $310 in these tough economic times. Pragmatically it doesn’t make that much sense … we might open something else. That’s what I mean about being fluid and looking for new opportunities.”
In a strange way, the virus has released him from the gilded cage of running one of the best fine dining restaurants in Australia. “There were things that I had maybe dreamed of doing in the past that I didn’t have the courage to do,” he says. “Now you have to roll the dice and do it, because if you don’t, you’re gone anyway. The writing is on the wall.”
On April 8, Shewry unearthed a can of black spray paint from the cupboard. He climbed onto the stainless-steel bench of the kitchen and began writing a new mantra in gnarled block letters a foot high, literally on the wall. Then he moved into the dining room, and sprayed the same thing, ripping into the soft tones of the spot-lit paintwork. Three words: NEVER GIVE UP.
“It felt like, you know what: f… this. This is not the same place any more, already. I consider myself a leader and I want to lead and I also want to put a positive message out there to the community to not give up,” Shewry says. “It felt empowering to spray paint it on these pristine walls, where I would never have considered doing that before. I don’t accept what’s happening to me and it’s not okay, and I’m going to do something about it.”
Ben Shewry knows there are more hard times ahead. But his 43rd birthday, and the weeks that followed, were surely the worst of it. “It can’t get much harder than that.”
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
Michael is lifestyle editor of Good Weekend magazine overseeing style, culture, recipes and restaurants. A food fanatic, he is usually on the hunt for something delicious.