The storyteller chef
Photography: colin page
9:01AM, Sep 19, 2012
"It's not a straightforward cookbook," says GT's Chef of the Year, Ben Shewry, master of understatement. "And it's not really a restaurant book either. There's a lot of my family in there, and storytelling is a huge part of my family's heritage - telling real-life stories about what has been happening to us is something we've always done for entertainment - and so I wanted to bring some of that to it. So really it's the story of my journey to where I am now."
"Here", of course, is Attica, the Melbourne restaurant housed in
what used to be a suburban bank. It's where New Zealand-born Shewry
has for the last seven years been attracting increasing
international attention (Noma's Rene Redzepi, for one, is a vocal
cheerleader) for his clever, sometimes whimsical and always
interesting cooking style while also developing his stances on
ethics and sustainability.
More recently, his foray into the world of books has resulted in the moodily beautiful Origin: The Food of Ben Shewry. Shewry's claim that it's concerned with narrative as well as cooking is no idle marketing ploy. Parts of Origin read as a memoir about growing up in a close-knit family on a farm in the isolated rural north-west of New Zealand's North Island, with all the hard work, adventure and fantastic, almost fairy-tale elements that come with that particular territory.
Shewry's dramatic, sometimes disturbing tales tell of wild geese being senselessly slaughtered by drunken revellers at a party, of cooking schools run by bellowing, swearing chefs and of restaurants thick with Byzantine layers of politics and hierarchy. There are stories of eating Chinese takeaway with his grandparents, of taking a revelatory stroll through Copenhagen's King's Garden with food scientist Harold McGee. We see Shewry laying his first hangi at the age of 10 (potatoes only, not left long enough to cook properly), and we see him also washed off rocks while fishing as a kid and saved by his father. And we see him teaching his own children the ways and the joys of foraging. The storytelling gene is strong in this one.
Origin also reads as an entertaining how-to manual on, say, setting up that hangi, mustering a flock of panicked sheep (courtesy of Shewry's dad, Rob), foraging for sea lettuce and humanely butchering cattle. But for all the storytelling and philosophising, it's a book very much about the food of Attica.
Anyone who has eaten at Attica over the years will recognise some of the recipes in Origin, particularly the long-standing signature dishes such as the "simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown" ("simple" is clearly a relative term: the ingredient list includes 3kg of soil), the ethereal, volcano-shaped "snow crab" and the six-separate-recipes, start-two-days-in-advance "terroir". You can see the Julie & Julia-style recipe challenge blogs already.
Certainly this is not cooking for the faint of heart. Origin belongs to that breed of restaurant book, along with Peter Gilmore's Quay, Mark Best's Marque and even Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck Cookbook, where there is no dumbing-down of recipes, no shortcuts or offer of alternatives for the home cook.
"I haven't held back with the recipes," says Shewry. "I thought it was important for them to be exactly as we do them in the restaurant kitchen because it is the only way to really explain and show to people why we do the things we do, why we go to the trouble of doing things in certain ways."
One man's simplicity can be another's nervous breakdown, and while Shewry was fastidious about making sure the recipes were properly tested, nearly every dish in the book involves multiple components, many of which require advanced cooking skills and call for equipment such as rotary evaporators, chamber vacuum sealers and food dehydrators. "Terroir", for example, requires you to make beetroot cake, sorrel ice, fromage blanc sorbet, avocado jelly and terroir base (a mix of freeze-dried berries, barley and beetroot) and then finishes off with another recipe devoted just to plating and garnishing with an ingredient list that includes 32 burnet leaves. The very things that attract us to dishes on restaurant menus, of course, are the ones that send us packing when we read a recipe, and therein lies the challenge in all restaurant cookbooks.
Still, even if many of the recipes might appear insurmountable for the average home cook, the way they have been captured by photographer Colin Page (also responsible for the truly stunning landscape shots of both New Zealand and Australia that appear throughout the book) brings them to life on the page. Add the stories and Shewry's ability to deliver impassioned, personal arguments for sustainability and truth in labelling laws, ethical treatment of animals and responsible consumption without coming across as annoyingly preachy and you find yourself agreeing that this is a story worth staying with to the end.
A manifesto? Perhaps. But it's better and probably more accurate to think about Origin as The World According to Ben.
Origin: The Food of Ben Shewry is published by Murdoch Books (hbk, $95).