Taste Australia's Weirdest Produce in Attica's Mysterious Garden
At one of the world's 50 best restaurants, greatness starts in the strange garden, where Australia's unique produce is exploding with flavor.
"Look at that," Ben Shewry, head chef and owner of Melbourne restaurant Attica, says excitedly, gesturing to the pineapple sage shrub next to him. "It's not often that you get to see bees like that!" There's more bees than the tiny scarlet flowers that are covering the shrub. These blossoms, along with licorice leaves, native davidson plum jam and beer cream can be found accompanying Attica's signatureWallaby Blood Pudding Pikelets.
I'm standing in Shewry's impressive kitchen garden at the historic Rippon Lea Estate, which is leased from the National Trust. It's a combination of four plots over a 1500 square meter area of dirt, seedlings, manure, earthworms, sunlight, and rustling trees. This remarkable garden is just a few minutes walking distance from the dim lighting, white tablecloths, lengthy wait lists, and 21-course tasting menu at Shewry's establishment, one of the world's best restaurants.
It's from these fertile plots where Shewry's team is growing over 100 different varieties of herbs, flowers, and leafy components that dominate Attica's Australian-inspired dishes. During my visit, the aromatic rippon lea broth that's on the menu requires a mixture of 25 different types of flora alone. The "ten flavours of St. Joseph's wort," dish needs ten types of basil. This garden has it all. This lush area is also where the Attica kitchen staff spend around four hours every morning planting, pruning, weeding, and harvesting everything into a large blue "chilly bin" that ends up in the restaurant for prep. "My staff are 80 percent chefs, 20 percent gardeners," says Shewry.
The garden is an extension on the restaurant's pre existing patch in a small adjacent former parking lot, where dinner guests go for their 'Cuppa Tea & Bikkies in the Garden" course in an effort to showing people that Attica is "not bullshitting," says Shewry. This no BS approach to dining combined with the moody, evocative, clever dishes that come out of the kitchen have helped the restaurant hold a spot on the World's Best 50 Restaurants list for the past four years, right up to spot #21 in 2015, the highest for any Australian restaurant.
Behind the green corrugated iron gate—with its titillating peephole that reveals parts of the garden—lies an Alice-through-the-looking-glass-style checkerboard landscape of timber packing crates which are overflowing with holly flax, Lebanese watercress, chervil, lovage, and mint varieties such as chocolate and grapefruit mint. The crates are second-hand, inherited from the property's orchard, and filled with excess soil that was donated by a local nursery.
"I've never felt richer than when I feasted on the scraps of society," Shewry told the audience at the 2011 MAD Symposium. "The things no one cares for. The weeds that grow along the train lines in a city, whether it's an oil drum, or the oranges from your neighbour's tree falling into your yard. It's good to make use of these things."
After Shewry came on as head chef at Attica in 2005, the restaurant made a name for itself as a foraging pioneer in the Australian dining scene. These days, the garden provides more consistency to what he was looking for in foraging: a nod to the surroundings, a sense of immediacy and freshness. Shewry breaks off a small bunch of chervil and hands it to me to taste. "Take a look at that, eh?" he says with a hint of a Kiwi twang. "Do you ever see chervil like that in the shops?" I agree as I realize that every limp, plastic-wrapped herb I've ever purchased is total shit.
We continue on our garden frolic past the estate's late 19th century mansion along a gravel path under a canopy of bunya pines, a source for Attica's salted red roo with bunya bunya that's on the menu at the moment. The staff are hunched over, busy picking rocket flowers, planting broad beans, and harvesting bunches of lush, densely-growing sorrel for tonight's dinner service.
Although the garden looks lush, Shewry explains that the soil needed a lot of work, taking a lot of time to get it to where it needed to be. This TLC regime involved crop rotation, aeration, and manure, but no fertilizers were involved; not even organic ones. "We don't use any of that. People seem to overcomplicate gardening." Growing up on 2000-acre property in Taranaki, a wild and remote area on the western tip of New Zealand's north island, Shewry inherited a green thumb from his father, a farmer, and his mother, an award-winning gardener. Times were tough, and living from the land was an essential way of life.
"We want to give back to the grounds. That's our philosophy with Attica, whether it's to the garden, our staff, or our diners."
This garden is a tight space with low, overgrown beds of burnet, fruit salad sage, wormwood, geranium nutmeg, and lemon bergamot. We taste some of the distinctively cucumber-like burnet and discuss the process of introducing new plant varieties into the restaurant's dishes. "This one took a while to crack," Shewry confesses. "Eventually, we ended up crushing it into a paste with dried river trout to make a sauce for cucumber."
Set against one of the lawns of Rippon Lea House, this garden is the most recent addition to the plot. There's a strawberry patch, rhubarb with prehistoric-sized leaves, licorice herb, chard, kale, and the heavily bee-populated pineapple sage. Are we in Willy Wonka's factory?
Shewry stops to chat with some staff who are planting seedlings. "They're the snow peas, yeah? OK great. Let's stake them." He adds, "But gently... tenderly."
For Shewry, these ingredients aren't just fresh produce, but meaningful to every dish. "I use nature and our cultural heritage as the basis for our dishes," he explains. Australia touches every plate that I taste, from Gazza's vegemite pie, halftime oranges, 142 days on earth (the age of the cabbage in the dish), and plight of the bees, a dessert so notoriously complex to make, it had to be taken of the menu. Presented in a Tasmanian oak box made to resemble a beehive, the dish was a combination of fennel ice, fresh and distilled mandarin, meringue, pumpkin, and curd infused with wild lemon thyme honey. It took 18 months to perfect.
Despite Attica's great success with accolades such as appearing on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list, Shewry's pulling back on travel to spend more time with his family and in the kitchen. "In the last 18 months, I've only been out of the country twice," he proudly explains. "I want to be with my family. I want to be in the kitchen. It's hard for me to keep the restaurant moving forward if I'm out of the kitchen all the time."
The aim of this garden is to foster an understanding of Australian origins in the chefs at Attica, as well as maintaining a culture of self-sufficiency. "So many chefs work with ingredients and they don't know where they come from. Our chefs have planted everything themselves. They're down in there with their hands in the soil and what they're putting in is what we get out, right up to what goes on the plate."
Shewry points to the bees hovering over the pineapple sage. "We're just like them," he explains. "We're here buzzing around and even if we're not quite sure what the other's doing, we all know our place."