In our increasingly connected world, global excellence emerges from the most surprising locations. Take Attica restaurant, for example. This award-winning eatery is located not in some gastronomic hotspot – Paris, London, New York or even Las Vegas – but on a small shopping strip in the sleepy Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea.
In June this year, Attica was the highest ranked Australian contender (at 33) in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “It’s small, it’s dark, it shouldn’t be one of the best restaurants in the world but it is,” MasterChef judge Matt Preston told Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table.
Ben Shewry, Attica’s head chef and co-owner, is fiercely ambitious and widely creative, but he is also modest. He doesn’t induce kitchen nightmares in his brigade of waiters and cooks, and prefers to confer rather than bark orders.
In July last year, after a decade working as the restaurant’s head chef, Shewry and his wife, Natalia, became owners of Attica.
“It becomes hard to feel empathy or understanding if you don’t know what another person’s job entails and requires from other staff members. We are trying to find harmony.”
“We are not looking for improvements of 5 per cent or 10 per cent,” he explains. “We are looking at improvements of more like 1 per cent or half a per cent. We are looking for that every day.”
The New Zealand-born chef did the typical apprenticeship slog, progressing through the traditional route of long hours and low pay in Wellington and then Melbourne. He joined Attica in 2005 age 27, a new father, hungry for his first head chef gig.
In the early days the restaurant was bereft of customers, beset by debt and close to bankruptcy, until Shewry found a way to unlock culinary success by using native and foraged ingredients to find his “own cooking voice”. By 2008 it was awarded the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year and two out of three chef’s hats.
Attica head chef and owner Ben Shewry boards mussel man Lance Wiffen’s boat.
During the difficult years Shewry hit a wall, and says he fell into a nine-month depression. What put his life in perspective was a visit to a local mussel farmer 25 years his senior, Lance Wiffen. As a young man, Wiffen had nearly lost his business when salinity levels rose in Port Phillip Bay during a drought. Wiffen’s experience and the fact that he missed out on his own children’s childhoods struck a chord in Shewry. He realised things had to change. He knew he wanted to see more of his family and that he needed a better work-life balance. To do that, he weeded out difficult staff at work and improved management and staff communication.
LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP AND TEAMWORK
His involvement with his children extended to five years coaching his son Kobe’s basketball team, and it had an unexpected pay-off.
“It was a real challenge for me coaching five- to six-year-old kids,” says Shewry. “It led to me being more understanding of staff and the issues they face each day, and to dealing with it in a more caring and understanding way.”
In restaurants the world over, tension and fractures exist between front of house (the waiters) and back of house (the kitchen brigade). While Attica was never the war zone that exists in restaurant lore, Shewry admits: “we just weren’t communicating as well as we could be and that led to people getting annoyed with each other and there was disruption.”
So he came up with the idea of daily 3pm staff meetings and speeches to solve communication issues and find that extra 2 per cent edge. A different member of the 30-strong Attica team gives a short prepared speech about an experience or discovery. “It has to be helpful and positive,” Shewry says.
The meeting pulls together people who don’t usually interact much (for example, the pastry chef and the person in charge of drinks rarely meet apart from these meetings), and it helps them understand each other’s work problems.
“It becomes hard to feel empathy or understanding if you don’t know what another person’s job entails and requires from other staff members,” Shewry observes. “We are trying to find harmony, I suppose.”
Keeping the quality of the food and service consistent is incredibly important. “A restaurant like Attica has to take quite a few risks with its prep, service and finishing dishes. Otherwise the magic doesn’t happen,” says Shewry. Live shellfish are killed to order, ingredients foraged, and herbs and vegetables are harvested daily from the restaurant gardens on the nearby Ripponlea Estate.
All the broths, purees and sauces served in the restaurant are made on the day. The process takes longer than in a traditional kitchen cycle and means there is no margin for error. Consistency comes from all staff working as a team and having systems in place that ensure every person knows their role and responsibilities.
Restaurant kitchens have been run along notoriously militaristic lines since the 19th century when Auguste Escoffier, the father of the regimented kitchen brigade, brought his experience of army catering during the Franco-Prussian war to the kitchens of the Savoy in London.
“The traditional French way was that you have your section. You don’t leave your section. You look after your section. And nobody is going to help you if you start going down,” says Shewry.
Colleagues help each other out – back and front of house – rather than let them sink if something goes wrong. Instead of one person being responsible for baking the bread, the roster is shared across all 18 chefs. Every member must be able to assemble every dish on the menu. If waiting staff aren’t available, a chef will deliver a dish to the table, leading to more care in preparation.
Shewry has also improved Attica’s relationship with suppliers by paying on delivery or within one week. “Just by that simple action you breed quite a bit more loyalty. People come to you frequently with new things. Because you are first to pay you get the best.
“If you are doing something at a higher level and you want to improve yourself, you really have to push yourself to make those changes and push your staff.
“The last year has been about that pushing myself and trying to redefine what we do. I feel like, because of all those changes, it is a much more positive place. And it’s been passed on to the guests, I reckon. I feel that people are more into it than before and that’s a really cool thing.”