Table Talk: Ben Shewry for Father's Day

Table Talk: Ben Shewry for Father's Day

On top of being the head chef and owner of one of the world’s best restaurants, Ben Shewry is also the world’s raddest dad.
Ben Shewry needs little introduction. You might know him as the head chef and owner of one of the world's best restaurants, Attica.

But to three teenagers, he's just known as 'Dad'.

Food is important to Ben — it forms the bedrock of his life's work. But food also creates the space to form family rituals; from sacred weeknight dinners where no phones are allowed, to at-home restaurants dreamed up by his daughters, and taking each of his children individually for a one-on-one experience at his restaurant.
To celebrate Father’s Day, we were lucky enough to catch up with Ben and ask him about children, how they inspire him, the importance of family traditions, and lessons learned from fatherhood.


Thanks so much for chatting with us ahead of Father’s Day. What’s new in your world?


There’s always lots of new things and generally they are projects that I can’t even talk about! There are some really big ones that have been secretly running for a few years in the background and big ambitions that are about to be realised.


The rest of the year is going to flash by — I’m not even sure what day of the week it is at the moment! It’s intense, but positively intense.


Are you cooking up anything new in the Attica kitchen?


There is something fun I’m working on — again it’s quietly in development both at home and at the restaurant. It comes back to a core philosophy of mine that in order to subvert something, you first have to deeply understand it.


Before I approach anything, I have to learn the classic aspect of its preparation before I can then change it. Issues always arise in all forms of life, not just in cooking, when people try to change things without really understanding them first, whether that’s in politics or the arts or in cooking—there needs to be a heavy and healthy respect for the problem you’re trying to address.


Do you get your kids involved in the taste testing process when you’re developing Attica menu items at home?

They are a big part of it. They always want to know what I’m doing and want to help, especially my two daughters Ruby and Ella. A lot of my experiments are often shared as dinner.


Can you tell us about your three kids?


Kobe is my oldest, he’s 17 and his whole life is basketball. It’s been something that he came to himself, I never pushed him toward it. He was the sort of kid that would sleep with a ball in his bed.


He’s so self-motivated and is really at the pinnacle of his young career representing Victoria in basketball.


He’s a beautiful combination of natural ability and hard work. It’s a joyous and moving thing watching him play. He’s an exceptional young man.


Is it a happy coincidence his name is Kobe?


It’s sort of weird! I’m a huge fan of basketball and enjoy playing. Kobe Bryant was on the news in 2004 for a really high scoring game and I remember talking to his mum saying, “Hmm that’s a great name”. And it’s ironic, that through no encouragement from me or his mum, that he got into basketball. But now that he is so into basketball, there’s a lot of weight behind that name! Maybe I should’ve called him Bob or something.


And can you tell us about your daughters?


Ella is 15 and she has incredibly high emotional intelligence and is really observant. She sees things, listens to things, and remembers things. She can recite something word for word that I said 7 years ago, things that I’ve long forgotten.


Her passions are very much in the arts. Cooking is a great passion of hers and she’s most likely to become a chef. She’s (willingly) spent the most time at the restaurant. She loves the infectious culture of Attica, and I can see as a child how it can suck you in. There are 30-40 adults here every day who are all passionate and kind, and they take the time to talk to the kids — they are interested in them beyond being the owner’s kids. They put her to work! She’s spent hours in the kitchen doing prep work and foraging, both at Attica and at our Summer Camp pop-up.


And then Ruby is 12 and she is a ball of energy. She’s a thoroughly good person – it’s at her core. She can’t stand getting in trouble and doesn’t ever want to do the wrong thing.


She loves animals on an unprecedented level. She’s completely fascinated by them. We have two cats at our house — she lives for them and wants to work with animals in any capacity. We have two Bengal cats, who are high energy, and she plays with them from dusk ‘til dawn. She took it upon herself to teach one of them to walk on a lead. She’s persisted with that for 3 years for several times a week and now she’s trying to train the other.


She’s always looking for things to do. In the school holidays she spent about a week of it doing household chores with me which is quite unusual for a teenager (I paid her!) but she worked so hard. She always offers to help and is an unselfish type.


We loved the pop-up restaurant Ruby and Ella organised at your house for your family and friends. Can you tell us more about it?


The pop-up was totally their own idea. We organised to have another family over and they cooked for all 10 of us. The week before, they planned their menus and decided it was going to be pizzas.


They gave me and my partner Kylie their order list for ingredients, but the rest was all them. They hand-wrote 10 menus, they compiled a great (but limited) playlist of records they found at the op-shop, they set the table and laid out all their dinner and servingware.


Ruby is the sort of kid that doesn’t want any help, so I was banned from the kitchen. She followed a New York Times recipe — which I thought was rather sophisticated. The only advice I gave was cook what you know, which is the same for professional chefs when doing special events. They had made pizzas before, so they were confident.


The did some snacks to start, some crudité and dips. And for dessert, Ella broke out her ice-cream churner that she got from Santa Claus a few years ago, so they made fresh ice cream and a two-layered cake with meringue baked into the top which they filled with lemon curd and cream.


And as it was a Sunday night, they conveniently had to go to sleep early. So, my partner Kylie and I did all the cleaning. But that’s okay, school is more important.


You’re an incredibly involved dad, a head chef, a business owner, and working on several projects. How do you balance your career with family time?


It helps to understand my motivation for my career, and my motivation is my family. Everything I’ve been able to achieve has been for my family – not just for the need to provide for them, but to set a good example, too. My parents were a wonderful role models, they were amazing – those shoes are impossible to fill.


The other part of it is that I’m an ambitious person and sometimes I don’t event understand my own ambition. I am acutely aware of the effects of ambition on children. While its healthy for children to grow up with motivated parents, its unhealthy if the ambition is at the cost of the family. I’ve been careful to monitor that and make sure there is balance.


I also believe in involving my family in my business and career – they’re at the restaurant a lot and will come to events. I don’t believe that children should dictate everything in a parent’s life. Parents need to sustain their own identities and lives – that’s a healthy thing, so I bring them along for the ride.


You have a beautiful family ritual of taking each of your children to Attica for a one-on-one dining experience with you. How did that tradition start?


It came about simply because taking them to Attica is a joyous thing to do — to see the project that is Attica through a child’s eyes. They view it so differently to an adult; they make observations that an adult wouldn’t and there’s a lot to be learned there.


But mostly it’s about family rituals which I’m a big believer in. Dinnertime is a ritual in our family – it’s something we never skip out. No matter what, we are always going to have dinner together. No phone, no distractions, just us and good food.


Taking each of my kids to Attica is also educational. I want them to understand culture and food. Why some food tastes different than others and how we emotionally connect with food in different settings. I also want to share my life’s work with them which has been a huge sacrifice at times. Whether they decide if it was worth it or not is up to them, I can’t say. They can decide that for themselves.


It's also a moment for just me and one of them. I want to tell them that in that moment there is no one more important in the world but you — you’re very important to me. Part of the whole ritual is shopping for a new outfit and even getting a haircut!


When I went in recently with Ruby she was brimming with excitement. All her senses were overwhelmed interacting with the food, guests and the staff. Her observations were so beautiful and, to me, profound.


Even though I was trying to me present in the moment, I had to write down all the things she said. I knew if I didn’t write them down, I’d forget. It was the best time I’ve had coming into the restaurant.


What are some lessons that fatherhood has taught you?


To be patient. Patience is like parenting currency. It’s so important to give your child the respect of patience. We easily forget what it was like to a be a child which is where patience is often lost. My kids are a reminder of my own experience – I never want to lose that part of me as I age.


One of my fundamental rules as a parent is always doing what you say you’ll do. My kids know 100% if I say I’m going to be there, I will be there. If I promise something, I always follow through. There’s comfort and stability in that.


Fatherhood has also taught me the importance of keeping an energy — keeping myself mentally and physically fit. It’s hard to keep up with teenagers but I have an obligation as a parent to stay healthy, eat well and exercise, so I can do the best by them.


How do each of your kids inspire you?


Kobe – his discipline, dedication, and resilience. Even in trying times, he has the ability to pick himself up, accept the situation, be grateful, see the positive, then move on and improve.


Ruby — her innate curiosity and her excitement for life; it’s so endearing. She teaches me to not take anything for granted which is a core trait for adults to retain.


Ella – her purposeful attention. She has an amazing ability to make you feel like you’re the only one in the room. She creates an atmosphere of genuine connection. She never misses anything and is always paying attention to the details.


This wouldn’t be a Father’s Day special without us asking about your worst dad joke. Is there one that make your kids’ eyes roll to the back of their head?


Hah – there is actually, but it’s more of an ongoing family joke. It’s corny and, to be honest, sounds a bit privileged. But three years ago, I bought by first really nice car. It’s a second-hand Porche Macan – my partner Kylie things it’s really pretentious.


But it’s red and looks like a million bucks. It’s the nicest thing I’ve ever owned. I joke that my car (which is nicknamed Avo Toast) is my fourth child and their brother.


They hate this. They’re always deriding Avo Toast and telling me:

“Avo Toast is a DORK”

“He’s so unpopular, Dad”


And, of course, I hit them back with “Well actually I just picked him up from his service, and I was told he was the most popular”

“He’s my favourite child.”


It’s lame but the daily banter about this car and the constant notion that it’s member of the family really makes their eyes roll.