Ben Shewry suddenly looks stricken. The chef is talking about WAW (What a Wonderful World), the free "anti-festival" he organized in Melbourne earlier this year, explaining its design as a forum where chefs and thinkers can share ideas about food and kindness.
Someone interjects, insisting Shewry is peerless—"miles above" the participants he mentions. It's meant as a compliment, but Shewry later tells me the remark made him want to throw up. "I don't think I'm better than anyone," he says. "You get so much more out of this business by being supportive of one another."
Shewry is modest to a fault and almost unnervingly candid in interviews, but the truth is, there's a lot of pressure on the guy. Like it or not, he's the face of modern Australian cuisine, a phrase that might have seemed like an oxymoron a decade ago. But thanks in large part to his World's Best Restaurants-certified Melbourne restaurant, Attica, situated on a historic estate with sprawling gardens from which Shewry has exclusive rights to cull anything edible, the food world is paying more attention to Australia than ever before.
Salt-cured kangaroo with bunya | Photo: Courtesy of Attica
And with good reason. At Attica, Shewry is obsessed with indigenous ingredients once considered "bush tucker," or, not worth eating. Walking through his garden before service, he points out a conifer tree called a bunya-bunya with pine nuts the size of lima beans. Those nuts will later appear with salted kangaroo and pickled purple carrots. Blood-red emu is served in a cup of purple cabbage with a smoked egg emulsion and beet juice, and the dish is called 142 Days on Earth (that's the age of the cabbage). For dessert, diners are invited into the mini garden in the backyard to pick their own herbs before getting a ceremonious scoop of ice cream on top from Shewry himself. It would be preposterous if the chef wasn't so sincere in his love for the ingredients, or if he didn't have such skill in the kitchen.
Shewry is just one of many chefs across the country who are putting native ingredients front and center. Australia's diverse climate allows for growing essentially everything—here, local is implied. At Brae, a revamped farmhouse in rural Victoria, Mugaritz alum Dan Hunter serves air-puffed beef tendon dusted with ground mountain pepper from Tasmania. At Vue de Monde in Melbourne, Shannon Bennett seasons barramundi collar with lemon myrtle, a native herb similar to verbena. At Orana in Adelaide, Jock Zonfrillo serves marron, a local crayfish, with finger limes and aniseed myrtle. In Sydney, Sean Moran of Sean's Panaroma plates bodacious local lamb chops in a cozy room overlooking Bondi Beach.
And yet, there seems to be self-consciousness about the definition and place of Australian cuisine. Unlike, say, France or Italy, Australia's food culture is unencumbered by centuries of tradition, which makes it both less rigid and less renowned. Locals like to point out that it's a young nation, shaped strongly by immigrants, and, as a result, Australian cuisine is still very much evolving. Asian influences abound, and chefs from other countries are relocating to Australia to take advantage of the local ingredients and economy. "At some point soon, people are going to have to start recognizing and taking pride in Australian cuisine," Shewry, who is himself not native (he was born and raised in New Zealand), says.
That point is nearing. Australians are utterly food obsessed, and cities like Melbourne and Sydney are blossoming into eating-and-drinking destinations in their own right (more on that in a future story). As bush tucker evolves into haute cuisine and local chefs continue to experiment with global flavors, it's never been a more exciting time to eat in Australia.
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