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Cooking with resilience and creativity

With Ben Shewry

Season 3 - Episode 4

28 Sep 2021
In Good Health Podcast 31:52

The disruptions of the COVID pandemic can be seen across many industries in Australia and around the world.

But the impact felt by the hospitality industry in particular is undeniable.

In this episode, we talk to chef Ben Shewry and discuss how his life and restaurant Attica have changed since the pandemic began, the importance of resilience and creativity, and why we should always lead our lives with kindness.

  • Show notes

    This interview was recorded during the current Victorian Coronavirus outbreak, in line with the Victorian Government’s COVID public health advice.

  • Transcript

    VicHealth Ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria's health promotion agency.

    Ben: One thing that really, I really believe in and has served me incredibly well, is just to have the best possible people around you at all times. And if I have one great skill, it's not that I'm particularly talented at anything else. It's that I'm very good at putting and choosing exceptional people to be around me. And those people make me look very, very good.

    Dr Sandro: You’re not, you're not a bad cook either I think.

    Dr Sandro: Hello and a big welcome to In Good Health. I'm your host, Dr. Sandro. I'm a medical doctor, a public health expert, VicHealth CEO and a foodie. Our very special guest today is none other than Ben Shewry.

    Dr Sandro: Ben is a New Zealand born chef, father and owner of the restaurant Attica in Melbourne, Australia. Since taking over Attica in 2005, Ben has earned a reputation for excellence and creativity. Attica has received several prestigious awards, attracted top chefs and visitors from around the world, as well as making the world's 50 best restaurants list for several years running.

    Dr Sandro: You might also know Ben from featuring on the Netflix series Restaurant Australia and of course, Chef's Table. During the height of the COVID pandemic when restaurants were closing, Ben looked at new and inventive ways to keep Attica thriving and his workers employed.

    Dr Sandro: In today's episode, we'll call Ben and discuss his life and how it's changed since the pandemic began. The importance of resilience and why we should always lead our lives with kindness. Let's give him a call.

    Dr Sandro: G’day Ben how are you going?

    Ben: Hey Sandro, how are you?

    Dr Sandro: I'm very well. You know peak, peak lockdown. It's a bit of a tough time, I know, for everyone. But you're doing, OK?

    Ben: I am mate, it's great to be here with you today. Thank you.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah. Thank you for making the time. You know, to say that the last 18 months has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. When the pandemic started, how did you feel? I mean, what were your first thoughts?

    Ben: 15th of March, 2020. It was, that was the D-Day, I suppose, for me. It was my birthday and I was trying to celebrate my birthday with my partner, Kylie, and my 3 children, Cobby, Ella and Ruby. And it was a Sunday.

    Ben: And I just had this terrible feeling inside like a knot in my stomach, because I thought that everything that I'd worked so hard for in my life was about to be taken away from me.

    Ben: I thought that I would lose my business and company. And I was fairly certain of it, actually, that I'd convinced myself that we would fail. And, because we were about to be ordered to close our dining room and cancel 3 months' worth of bookings.

    Dr Sandro: And what happened next?

    Ben: Well, that day I was feeling sorry for myself on my birthday. And it's a little bit unlike me to feel sorry for myself, but I was absolutely despairing. And despite the best efforts of Kylie and my kids to lift me up, even though I, I'm always pretty careful to hide my anxiety and stress from my children.

    Ben: You know, I just was certain. I just couldn't believe that takeaway food would be able to save a fine dining restaurant with high prices that we charge. I just couldn't imagine that that would save our company and the more than 40 jobs that rely on this business for their livelihoods.

    Ben: So, you know, that's kind of how I went to bed feeling, you know, that night, like just sick, really deeply sick inside. And the next day I woke up and I had received an email from a friend of mine from California, an entrepreneur called Bruce Dunlevie.

    Ben: And Bruce had sent a very, it was a 3-sentence email which said effectively, no matter what you do Ben, lead with positivity and just let that be your guiding thing. And, you know, you’ll get through it, so that message combined with Kylie's positivity and assistance. Made me think, well, you know, we don't have much left to lose. We, if we're going to go broke, then we might as well go out swinging and give it a red-hot crack.

    Ben: And so that's what we did that day. We made plans sort of immediately to flip the business to something completely different, a brand-new type of business that really wasn't anything like the business that we ran before. So, we went from being a fine dining restaurant to being a takeaway and delivery service, making menus based on my favourite childhood dishes and some of the favourite historical dishes of Attica.

    Ben: And we just went all in on that. We sat with the staff and we said, I said, listen, you know, if you don't want to do this I understand, at that point in time, it felt a little bit dangerous even and very uncertain.

    Ben: And I said, we sat in the dining room and I said, if anybody doesn't want to do this, you know, if you collectively don't want to do it, then we won't do it. And if you want to come to me privately and tell me, that's fine as well. You don't have to say so in front of the group.

    Ben: But everybody, without exception, wanted to do it more than anything. So, we decided to do it together. What came next really was one of the most crazy periods of my life that I can ever remember.

    Ben: And it was really like the beginning of Attica in 2005 all over again. 

    Dr Sandro: The weight, the weight on your shoulders at that point when you're trying to decide which road to take and whether you sort of, you know, try to bounce back and push hard and take the advice of that mentor must have been enormous.

    Ben: It was you know, because I don't come from much, though, like I haven't had very much financial help in my life. And I've had to earn the things that I've worked for. And I have. I suppose I had you know, I didn't have, I didn't really feel like I, you know, I'd have anything to fall back on.

    Ben: You know, if this failed then that was it for me. And it's very hard to come back from a restaurant failure or any kind of business failure. You know, people talk about entrepreneurs, you know, failing multiple times before they’re successful.

    Ben: But for me, you know, I'd been, I'd been employed at a restaurant which went broke. I was a pastry chef at a restaurant which went broke. And it was a very terrible feeling. You know, that time I felt responsible for it.

    Ben: I came back after the holidays to this venue, and my key didn't fit in the lock anymore. The security guard met me on the other side of the door, and that was the first time that I knew that that we’d gone broke.

    Ben: And I lost all of my holiday pay and my superannuation, and that really....but more than that, emotionally, I didn't cope well with that failure. And even that wasn't my fault. I wasn't the owner of the business, but I felt like, I took it on board like that.

    Ben: But that memory, that was very much in my mind when I was going through that sort of first week or two, the first months of COVID, that memory of failure. And I've always just had this sort of, I learnt from that failure. I learnt that I never want to go back to that place.

    Ben: And I you know, I really want to express that this was very much, completely a team effort and a huge amount of the credit should go to Kylie Staddon, who's my partner, but also the operations manager here.

    Ben: Because I'm just one person. There are 40 other people here and her smarts on working out how to deliver food to people, and the interface in the website, and the logistics of doing food delivery, which frankly is a complete nightmare when you're not doing it with an organisation.

    Ben: We do it for ourselves because we can't afford to lose a percentage off the price of our menus. And so, yeah.

    Dr Sandro: So, take us through, because one of the things that's really, you know the last, the last 18 months has just been a crazy ride. What has struck me Ben about your business, and I knew of you living overseas. You know, everyone around the world knows Attica. Even when I lived in Copenhagen, people talked about Attica from the other side of the world.

    Dr Sandro: But what struck me watching you over the last 18 months is just your incredible resilience, your sense of community, your sense of humility, but just your grit. So, can you take me through...because, you know, in a short summary, sort of what are the evolutions of Attica that we've watched you develop and launch?

    Dr Sandro: Because you've done soup, you've done summer camps, you've done bakeries, you've done more lasagne than my Nonna even did. So just take us through that scope of pivots, because I then want to ask you some questions about that.

    Ben: Well God, it's such a blur, you know, it's been, I don't even know where to start. I can't even remember everything we've done. It's, it feels like in a way it feels like a tunnel, but it also feels like being kind of tossed in the ocean as well.

    Ben: Like, you know, when you, when you go body surfing or you’re surfing and you get taken by a wave and it up ends you, and throws you in all kinds of different directions, and you don’t really know where you are.

    Ben: It's definitely been moments of that and that kind of chaos. But sometimes I quite like that chaos if I'm being completely honest with you as well. I like that disruption. I like sometimes the results that come from not being fully in control.

    Dr Sandro: How do you stay calm? How do you stay calm and focused in, in that in that wave? In that turmoil of the wave?

    Ben: I practice it. It's something that, you know, I suppose I've been inflicting on myself in a way for many, many years.

    Ben: I like things. I like work, artistic visions that are natural and that don't feel forced or contrived. And I know from just doing, you know dedicating my life to development, development of dishes and recipes and concepts, that the ones that were really thought out and really planned were often not the best ones.

    Ben: They often failed, or they didn't work out. And the ones that were, that were just discovered by a happy accident. Those are often the most meaningful and the most direct. So, I do like a certain level of sort of playful anxiety in my work and the ability to adapt very quickly.

    Ben: I think really probably, my ability to adapt and survive comes from a farming life, watching my parents do it with very little money in the late 70s and early 80s in New Zealand. And there's sort of an accountability on the farm where really is just you, the land, the animals, and nobody's going to save you.

    Ben: And that, I just watched that for a decade as a child, watched my dad and my mum flog themselves physically and mentally. But the whole time, you know, totally in love with each other and incredible parents and having a bit of fun as well.

    Ben: Even though they had very little financially, they had this wealth of kind of spirit. And we had a wealth around the dining table as well. But...

    Dr Sandro: Is that where, is that where your sense of community and also your resilience comes from, do you think? Your parents and growing up on a on a rural property in New Zealand?

    Ben: I think my parents are quite different. My dad is very gentle and very, very artistic, very creative. A naturalist, painter, landscape painter and amazing artist. But he's very emotional. I definitely have that side.

    Ben: He's very easy to cry. I'm very easy to cry. He's very emotional, always very creative. I'm very creative and very emotional. My mother is very direct and very driven. And I get my drive from her, and I get my grit from her, and I get my kind, you know, never say die kind of attitude comes from my mother, you know, who's had to overcome a lot to become successful.

    Ben: So that’s, those are probably the psychological breakdown of where I, where I get the traits that I have. And it's taken me some time to understand that.


    Dr Sandro: The last 18 months has been a huge demonstration of resilience and patience as we try to navigate the new normal. The disruptions of the COVID 19 pandemic can be seen across many industries in Australia and around the world. But the impact felt by the hospitality industry in particular is undeniable. The hospitality sector accounts for around 8 per cent of Australia's jobs. But since the COVID 19 pandemic, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 70 per cent of businesses in the hospitality sector have had to reduce the hours of their staff, while 43 per cent have had to either let workers go or place them on unpaid leave. So how did Attica manage to maintain success, creativity and its employees? Ben is here to share his story.

    Dr Sandro: Tell me about the Attica Soup Project. How did that come about?

    Ben: The soup project came about because, Attica, you know, at the at the start of the pandemic had more than 50 percent of our labour force had moved here from somewhere else, including me. And they, so they were invited to live here by the Australian government, you know, on various different visas, work visas.

    Ben: And when the pandemic hit, it became apparent that they were going to be left out of any form of help from the government, any form of financial help. And that didn't sit well with me. That didn't speak to the Australia that I know, that I, that I love to call home.

    Ben: And also, didn't sit well with Dani Valent, who was a food writer who lives in Ripponlea where the restaurant sits as well. And so, we sort of came around to the same line of thinking at the time. I was concerned about what would happen to my staff if Attica failed. You know, a lot of these international workers had come out here, made a life out here and couldn't go home for various reasons, whether it be no flights or no money or didn't want to because Australia was home.

    Ben: So, I felt like that was a weird thing. You know, it just didn't feel like, didn't feel like the Australia that I know. And so, we wanted to do something about it just to make a little statement about that, but also to support some people that we thought needed the help, because a lot of people were being stood down in hospitality. And so, it was a heap of hospitality visa workers out there who didn't have anything at all, no work and no food. And so, we just started making soup and we would make a huge amount of soup each week and pass it out.

    Ben: And it led to getting many donations from people of food. And we were able to provide enough groceries, fruit and vegetables and other things for people to survive off for a week. And we'd do it once a week in in the building next to Attica.

    Ben: And we did that for 6 months. And it was a really amazing privilege to be able to provide that for our fellow hospitality workers. Amazing experience. And we made a lot of good friends and some of the people that actually ended up coming to the soup kitchen now work for me, which is also really wonderful.

    Ben: But, yeah, it was just you know, it was just like, well, I'm not a big one, Sandro, on complaining about something and pointing to a problem without there being some sort of solution to the problem or, you know, I don't, I don't criticise people directly.

    Ben: I tend to sort of try to lead by example. I don't feel like you get change without acting like that. And so that's how I got about it. And this was, that was what the soup project was about as well. It was, you know, was filling a need in the community, but also to make a statement also about how we were treating our fellow people living in Australia.

    Dr Sandro: Positivity, one of the things that's really struck me Ben about your leadership is that positivity and kindness are so central.

    Dr Sandro: And you can, you can see that when you speak the way you talk to people, the way you interact. Even the generosity of joining us today. Do you think, I mean what role does positivity and kindness have in your own resilience as a leader?

    Ben: Well, you know, it's taken me some time to learn. And it's not that I don't have those internal voices like we all do, but I, I definitely think being positive is important. It's also really, really important if you're leading a team. And I know that from mistakes in the past that perhaps, you know, my leadership style from 8 or 9 years ago when things weren't going well in business, maybe I was a little too open with the financial problems of the business.

    Ben: And that influenced my team and it brought us all down a little bit. So, I'm pretty careful about how much of my personal anxiety that I that I put onto the team, because they have to do their job. And, you know, you just want to support them and provide them the best platform to do their job that you can.

    Dr Sandro: In terms of your positivity and your resilience. What role do mentors and even your partner, those really close to you play? Because, you know, even positive leaders have hard days, and I'm sure you do like everyone else. But what you've talked about, your mentors, you've talked about your business and your personal partner. What role do to those sorts of people have in your life as a leader?

    Ben: You asked me about kindness before, and I think kindness is something that we can probably talk about all day. My understanding of kindness is starting to become full circle. And I actually think that kindness is absolutely central and the single most important thing to a successful life.

    Ben: And I think it seeps into every part of your life that you can be successful at, kindness. And so, I learn a lot about kindness because I because I'm fascinated by it. I find humans fascinating, I find people fascinating. And the only way that you could get really close to people is through kindness, to observe them and their characteristics. I've always been a great studier of other humans. And I think the thing about kindness is it's you know; it comes from a certain place.

    Ben: And probably quite a lot of what we think of kindness is actually just being nice, but it's not real true kindness. You know, so I think kindness for me, it comes from, now as I've matured, it comes from a place of confidence and it comes without any expectation.

    Ben: And I think a lack of expectation or ulterior motives around kindness are what are actually essential to true kindness. By that, I mean doing something nice for somebody or something kind for somebody. And it could be anything but not expecting anything in return.

    Ben: And so long as you lead with that, you'll never be disappointed. Which is, which is great for one. But I've learned that by going that way, it's led me to some absolutely incredible experiences in my life that I can't even imagine having. And I could share one with you.

    Dr Sandro: Please do.

    Ben: One of my mentors and my close friends is a gentleman called Uncle Noel Butler. He's a Budawang/Yuin man from the south coast of New South Wales. He's in his mid 60s. He is a Yuin elder. He is the speaker of Dhurga, one of only a handful of remaining speakers. His family, his people have been on their country for, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of years, so far back that we couldn’t even remember how far.

    Ben: And he has intimate knowledge of the land, the animals, the ecosystem, everything that happens in that environment and it's humbling, the knowledge that he has. And I’ve been on country with Noel, you know, many, many, many times, so has Kylie and with his wife, Trish, just some of the nicest, kindness people that you’ll ever meet.

    Ben: And I always you know, have to pinch myself sometimes when I'm having these experiences, even after so many times. I'm not a religious person. But some of the things that have happened on country with uncle Noel, I would, and it's not a very good description. But I would describe them as kind of a religious experience or as I've said before in the past, undeniable some of the things that I've seen. Because, there’s this intergenerational knowledge that Uncle Noel has that's been passed down and passed down.

    Ben: Some of the things are so ancient that you're actually sort of awestruck by them. For example, the ability to choose the exact right type of timber that symbiotic to the item of food that you're going to cook. So, if it was a local fish that Uncle Noel harvested at just the right time, when certain flowers are blooming and in a very sustainable way, he would then choose a specific type of timber of wood to cook that fish in because...

    Ben: And I've witnessed this so, you know, you might think, well, what's in a different type of timber? Not much right. Surely, they all burn kind of the same, but they don't. So, he once called me on his ability to cook a fish in ash rather than embers. So, he needed a piece of timber that would burn down to ash, and most timber burns down to embers.

    Ben: And then he buried the fish in the ash and cooked it very, very slowly for about an hour and was absolutely succulent, delicious, peeled the skin off so there was no ash on the flesh. Some of the things that I've experienced with him and you know, as our relationship grew, our trust level grew.

    Ben: He knew that I come from a, you know, a respectful place. He accepted my ignorance, my lack of knowledge. And, you know, I've been on a tremendous journey with him, and I count him as a very dear friend. And after the bushfires that devastated his property, him and you know Trish, lost everything, their 100-acre rainforest property was perished in the fire.

    Ben: And then all of Uncle Noel's artifacts in their home and the education centre. We went up there soon after to help them replant some plants. And they did a smoking, a healing ceremony. And Uncle Noel asked me to join him in the ceremony, which is very, you know unusual.

    Ben: And I feel so privileged to be in that position. I could not believe it. It’s sending shivers up my spine just talking about it now. You know, it's just like, wow, I came to this country as a foreigner and, you know, 15 years later here I am involved in Aboriginal ceremony, which just felt like such a crazy privilege

    Ben: And I think, you know, that all started because I was just kind to Uncle Noel you know, without any expectation, you know, and he could, he could sense that. And that was years before, you know, and he's had a lot of unkindness in his life.

    Ben: He's dealt with a lot of racism. And it's you know, and it's upsetting to know that. But he's a wonderful man. So, I feel like, you know, just don't go into everything that you do with an expectation that you're going to get something in return. And if you do get something in return, what a nice surprise.

    Dr Sandro: That’s amazing, Ben. I wanted to ask about, you briefly talked about mentors, and I think for people listening, sometimes listening to someone like yourself who is a celebrated chef and a visionary, an entrepreneur in so many ways, it can seem almost, you know out of touch or, not you're out of touch, but it's sort of another world or it seems impossible. But you are such a human person.

    Dr Sandro: And just the humility and the generosity, and the positivity that you have is endless, it seems. But how do you, how do you recharge that? I mean, how do you recharge your creativity? Is it people? Is it experiences? Is it something deep inside, is it a place? What do you do to recharge your batteries?

    Ben: It's a little bit of all of that. I think the thing is, is that I've never forgotten where I came from. I come from a humble background, but I've never forgotten being a boy and having people invest in me, before I was known for anything. I was just a kid from the tiniest remotest speck on the planet, you know, a place called Awakino, where only probably a handful of other people lived and went to a school with seven students. Two of which were my sisters, and my mother was the schoolteacher.

    Ben: We lived a very sheltered, very isolated life and didn't have friends my own age. When I, I was a strange child. I wanted to be a chef from the age of 5 and lots of weird things like that.

    Ben: But you know, I've always been really lucky to have people around me, seemingly that cared. And that started happening to me from the age of 10 when people, I wrote a letter you know to do work experience at a restaurant. And they returned my letter, and I went and spent time in that kitchen. I mean, who would have a 10-year-old child in the kitchen? You know, that seems crazy in a commercial kitchen, they’re dangerous places.

    Ben: And I you know; I've never forgotten that. I've never forgotten those kind moments. And there's been multiples of them. When I was 21, I worked for the most inspirational man, you know, you who was running the best restaurant in New Zealand. His name was Mark Limacher, and he had 4 children. And he was doing it. And I remember one of them was crawling around on the floor in the kitchen in my interview. You know, he just, he really changed the way I thought about food, you know?

    Ben: I think staying open is super critical, you know, being open to, you know, both positive and, you know, and criticism. And just, I always think that, you know, I probably always sought out mentors. I've always understood the importance of having older, more knowledgeable people in my life to this day.

    Ben: And I have many, many mentors today. And it's a mistake to think that you don't have mentors when you become successful. I think, you know, almost felt like I needed them more than ever. And I have many people, more than a dozen people who are very significant who advise me and help me.

    Ben: And yeah, but I've always, I've always sought them out. And I'm very lucky that people have always taken an interest in me, and gave me the time. You know, I had this really like, by anybody's standards, really, you know, very low-level job when I came out of chefs' school working in a hotel on a buffet.

    Ben: And it wasn't pretty food, it wasn't glamorous food, it wasn't even particularly good food. But even in that environment, the chef saw something in me, a creative, creativity in me, and he said, Ben, you're going to be in charge of decorating the buffet. So, you know, I would go to work on the buffet, making sculptures out of margarine and cornucopias of fruit stuck on sticks that were, you know, 4 feet high. And, you know, so even like, it's always been like that.

    Ben: And I remember, you know, working at Government House in Wellington later and the kitchen hand was a Singaporean man called Roland Lau Pak Loon. And Roland you know, had been a fashion designer in Singapore and moved out to New Zealand. And the stars didn't align in that way.

    Ben: So, he became a kitchen hand, and he was a very good kitchen hand. And he was very, very knowledgeable about food, about Chinese food and Singaporean food. And so, he became a mentor of sorts, you know, at Government House where he schooled me daily about my average Asian cooking, you know.

    Ben: And he chastised me, you know, so it’s always been, every single step I've always sought people out because I'm very interested in people. It's very, very fascinating.

    Dr Sandro: It's amazing. And clearly, people who have both challenged you, but also given you the confidence or have channelled that energy as well.

    VicHealth ad: This podcast is brought to you by the team at VicHealth, Victoria’s own health promotion agency.

    Dr Sandro: Just to finish up, It's been incredible to speak to you as I always knew it would. But I mean, every time we speak, I feel like we could, I'd love to just continue to listen for hours.

    Dr Sandro: But, so this question is from Josie. She asks about creativity, I really value having a creative outlet from my normal job, apart from my normal job. But with lockdowns increasing I've noticed it's harder to find the energy and the motivation to be creative. How do you continue to be creative even when things get tough or stressful?

    Ben: Well, for a start, Josie, you know, take it easy on yourself. You know, it might seem like from the outside that, you know, I'm this unlimited source of creativity. But in reality, I have far, far more failures than I do good ideas. I would say that it's 1000 to one, perhaps. But one thing that is important is just to keep going. And, you know, I have those blocks as well and times where I'm not feeling inspired. But my way of overcoming that is to actually just to keep working. And sooner or later, it comes back around, and you come up with something great. So that's always served me well in the last 15 years.

    Dr Sandro: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, I really can't emphasise how much we appreciate it.

    Ben: Lovely to talk to you. Any time.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website, oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @vichealth.


Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.