At Attica, chef Ben Shewry's celebrated Australian restaurant, diners might sample red kangaroo, whipped emu egg or "pests of the neighborhood." The New Zealand native has devoted years to studying and using indigenous ingredients, driven by his desire to honor the food traditions of Aboriginal Australians.
The chef's thoughtful, multi-course meals have prompted the "great restaurants of the world" list makers to embrace Attica, which is in a suburb of Melbourne, and have attracted the attention of the Netflix documentary series "Chef's Table," which featured Shewry in its inaugural season.
We recently spoke with Shewry about his evolution as a chef, his fascination with green ants — and his time spent in dumbwaiters.
Can you remember what first sparked your interest in cooking?
I grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in New Zealand. We didn't have a lot of money, and cooking was the main source of family pleasure. It's something I've wanted to do since the age of 5.
What was your first professional experience in a kitchen?
I was around 10. I wrote letters to a bunch of restaurants in a city about two hours from where we lived, about working, and one of them said yes. It was called the Mill, and I spent Friday and Saturday nights there. It was very much a pirate crew in the kitchen, but they were really kind to me. I don't know if you could call it cooking, but I was helping and watching. It was a life-changing experience. When it got crazy, they would put me in this dumbwaiter between levels in the restaurant and send me to this downstairs bar. When people opened the door, I would roar like a lion.
And your parents were OK with this?
My parents were pretty exceptional. My dad was a farmer and an artist; my mom was a principal. In some ways, our lack of money became something of a strength. Our whole childhood was spent making use of overlooked objects, and that DIY aspect has been a big aspect of Attica.
You're got three kids — do any of them have an interest in cooking?
The two oldest are showing an interest — we cook together on Sundays at home. I kind of want to discourage it, if I'm being honest — but if it's their true passion, I'd be all for it. I want to make sure the motivation is love, not the influence of me. Or the potential financial aspects of it.
You've said you want to "bridge the divide" between Aboriginal food culture and immigrant traditions. How do you do that?
I came from a different country and, looking from the outside in, I saw ingredients that weren't being used and always wondered why. We all have to eat. One way of understanding the great divide could be the ingredients and how delicious they can be.
We have a hope that Australians and other guests will be able to experience some of these ingredients and start to have an appreciation for our ancient culture going back 60,000 years or more.
Tell us about some of the indigenous ingredients you use.
We're not in the business of shock value. We're in the business of deliciousness, but deliciousness can come in many forms. [Some people] think lobster and caviar is the upper echelon, but that's not what we do here.
We use green ants, which have been eaten for thousands of years. When we serve them to people, people are like, "gross," and I'm like, "It's not gross. It's one of the oldest ingredients in the country. "
Also, I have this obsession with wattleseeds [edible seeds from acacia trees] that goes back many years. They're still harvested by hand, and they're hard to come by. We always have them on the menu, but with other things, as flourishes. I want to celebrate this as a national grain, a hearty grain that we could [use to make] bread that everyone could eat.
We whisk them with indigenous bee honey and serve them with wattleseeds and chocolate ice cream, in a shell in a nest of emu feathers.
What are your plans while you’re in town?
I love Los Angeles — I think it's my favorite city in the world. I have a sister who lives in Santa Barbara and a lot of friends in L.A. as well. I love the culture and, food-wise, it's really interesting. I'm really looking forward to eating at Taco Maria [in Costa Mesa], and I'm spending a day with Curtis Stone, and I will see L.A. through his eyes.
Shewry will join chef Curtis Stone for a conversation and collaborative, multi-course dinner at Gwen, 6600 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, on May 26, 6:30-10:30 p.m., and will oversee an Australian-style BBQ at Everson Royce Bar, 1936 E. 7th St., Los Angeles, on May 27, 2-10 p.m. For tickets, to go lafoodbowl.com.