Origin – The Food of Ben Shewry »

An astounding book from a highly focussed and creative chef

By Robyn Lewis
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Origin - by Ben Shewry

Origin - by Ben Shewry

 

Food, family and foraging might sum up Ben Shewry’s life, at least to April 2013. These driving forces are distilled into Origin – a monumental book, in so many ways. I’d like to call it his magnum opus, yet it’s the first cookbook he has produced. Watch out, world.

As soon as it appeared, late in 2012, it leapfrogged all other contenders on our list to tie with über-chef Heston Blumenthal’s excellent Heston at Home for the VisitVineyards.com Cookbook of the Year 2012. And that was before I’d had time to digest it all. Nothing we have seen since has shaken it off its pinnacle.

To review this book and attempt do it justice has taken me months – at 288 pages of A3 hardcover, full of stories of Shewry’s upbringing in the north island of New Zealand, through the inspiration, training and single-minded dedication that has led him to where he is today, to his recipes and culinary creations – it is nothing short of astounding and deserves to be read from cover to cover.

Then the week after I finally started writing this review, Ben Shewry’s Ripponlea (Melbourne) restaurant Attica leaped into the global spotlight, making No.21 on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant list, the highest new entrant and the top restaurant in not just in Australia, but Australasia.

How fabulous, I thought, closely followed by ‘there goes my chance of ever securing a seat’ (I’d been thinking of taking my family to celebrate my husband’s recovery from a severe illness). But the restaurant holds only fifty-five and serves 275 diners a week, such is Shewry’s dedication to freshness, technique and purity of ingredients.

He’s has been quoted as saying they had about 10,000 phone calls in the following couple of weeks, and I guess the hype won’t let up any time soon.

It’s a long way from Attica’s first three years, when Shewry and sous chef Jason Chong worked 105 hours per week, often with a near empty house. The restaurant almost went bust several times. Thank goodness for the support and vision of co-owners and business partners David and Helen Maccora.

That makes the book even more precious, as it’s probably the closest that I (and quite a few others, I guess) will get to Ben’s food, at least in the near future. And Shewry has just been anointed as a culinary god, although being the modest man that he appears from his writings, he’d probably hate that thought.

So, where to begin, again?

Origin is part cookbook, part food philosophy, part story of the evolution of Shrewry’s cuisine, of the birth and growth of Attica (which had won plenty of Australian awards and had previously reached number 63 in the world), but throughout, it’s full of love of food, of foraging, of people and his extraordinary recipes.

It’s huge, it’s beautiful (I’d call it exquisite if it weren’t so earthy), it’s real and will make any foodie melt with joy. And it’s a long, long way from the ‘press release dressed up as restaurant cookbook’ that we’ve seen a few of lately.

The first word in Origin is sharing, and I’m thinking that this says a lot about the author. Sharing stories. But this is no marketing spin. Shewry says “I want to show the reality and detail of being a chef. My restaurant might be ranked number [now 21] in the world, but that doesn’t mean the lifestyle is glamorous. … My stories are real stories (and) … I’ve told it how it is.”

“My food has always been described as narrative food and in many respects that’s a correct description. Almost all my dishes are inspired by an important memory, story or a past experience.”

These include hangis in his native New Zealand, fishing with his father (and nearly being drowned when washed off the rocks by waves), a ghastly incident involving geese, whitebaiting in the local river, the eruption of Mt Taranaki (while Ben was snowboarding nearby), experiences in restaurants – both good and bad – and most importantly, his family and the times they shared together, often in nature.

And so to the food. At Attica, the team never prepare the dishes too far in advance, “lest the flavours become muted”. They finish, cut and make many items to order during service. (And when you see the number of ingredients in some, you’ll understand why they can’t accommodate more diners).

“As the dishes are simple and are often based on fruit and vegetables, there is nothing for them to fall back on….. We do not use heavy sauces or add large amounts of butter that might otherwise lift a dish if the preparations are a bit stale.”

In part, Shewry owes this approach to chef and mentor David Thomson, culinary anthropologist and author of Thai Street Food, which is always freshly prepared.

There’s more than a passing nod to the food of his Danish friend René Redzepi of NOMA fame, too, and past employers including Mark Limacher of Roxburgh Bistro in Wellington, New Zealand.

In one recipe it is revealed that “at least three people taste all of the stocks, broths and sauces at Attica to get a cross-section of different palates that more customers will find in tune with their own sense of taste.”*

This perfectionism extends to the sourcing of all the ingredients, some of which Shewry collects each morning from the sea-shore en route from his home in Ocean Grove (he currently commutes for a massive 3+ hours each day) but also from the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate.

Here the team have planted 150 heritage apple trees to ensure fresh and flavoursome supplies, and in between cooking shifts they plant seedlings and wash freshly-harvested Jerusalem artichokes and other seasonal produce of their organic soil.

Even the suburban gardens and trees around Attica provide foraging material.

If you haven't guessed already, this is not a book for those seeking quick results. One recipe on page 88 – Pine Broth, Fresh Olives, Young Artichokes – commences with the instruction “You will need to begin this recipe at least 30 days ahead” (to prepare your fresh green olives). Another gives instructions for drying your own bull kelp.

Origin describes a way of life in which food and creativity are both central, not afterthoughts.

The recipes trace the evolution of his career. The first chapter is Roots, which is Shewry’s case were in New Zealand farmland, although “not the parts you see in pretty postcards” but the hilly sheep and cattle country so prone to landslips and back-breaking to manage.

The Maoris have a word for it: whenua, man’s umbilical connection with his country, and here it is, in food.

Shewry expresses his whenua in dishes such as Asparagus, Buttermilk, Smoked Oil; Pork, Puha (wild watercress), Eel and Cress Oil; and one simply called Terroir. This has two pages of ingredients to prepare in advance, including dehydrated grated beetroot, and sounds like a symphony in food, something that is required to come together in total balance and harmony to achieve the desired effect.

Clearly, this is going to be beyond most home cooks, not only because of the time commitment and equipment required, but because unless you are fortunate enough to have tasted the original dish, there is no benchmark.

However, other creations like Lamb, Mushrooms Roasted over Wood, Sauce of Forbs are more attainable, especially if you have access to fresh farm produce and some pasture for harvesting your forbs (such as clover, oxalis and other flowering herbs).

Live near the sea? Try his Parsley Boiled in Seawater. I have, and it’s a revelation. Or are you nearer the desert? Then try Deep Fried Saltbush Leaves, one of the parts of ‘A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth in which it was Grown’ (which needs to be started four days ahead, if prepared in totality.)

Although Shewry admits that some of these early dishes he would not put on a menu now, they are part of his evolution as a chef.

Certainly this book makes you think about food differently – what has come to us from our forebears as immigrants to this part of the world, versus what is already available in Australia in plenty, much of it still neglected today.

It’s also a beautifully illustrated manual of how to let your imagination run wild.

The next chapter Into the Wild also begins with a hand-mounted black and white image, this of Shewry with snorkel and flippers, returning from marine foraging. There is no preface, which makes the first recipe Lettuce in a Natural State (cooked, with walnuts, lemon zest and ‘hunter stock’) all the more intriguing.

There’s a discussion on food labelling in Australia (more accurately, the lack of it), and more sumptuous photos illustrating dishes such as Artichoke, Sheep’s Milk, Hazelnuts (there is plenty in Origin for vegetarians); Bull’s Horn Pepper and Eleven Basils (each bite is to be taken with a different basil leaf); Grated Raw Vegetables, Green Fennel Seeds, Mustard Oil; Marron, Egg Yolk, Wild Onion Bulbs, and many more.

Shewry also highlights his huge regard for food’s provenance, with names such as Happy Fruits Organic Almonds describing the farm name where he sources his almonds in Mildura, NW Victoria, and carrying forth the pride, commitment and effort each grower put into their production.

There are also Sea Bounty mussels from Portarlington, not far from Shewry’s home, which “stood out as a beacon of quality in a sea of mediocrity”.

The photographs in Origin by Colin Page are a triumph, as is the book’s design by Reuben Crossman of Murdoch Books, whose team must be credited for taking what only last November might have been considered a somewhat risky leap of publishing faith.  Now, of course, it’s genius.

I often used to think when I was young that cooking was such an ephemeral art, with creations – which may have taken hours or days to prepare – lasting sometimes only minutes before being consumed…. but no longer.

Here, they are gorgeously preserved, and Page’s photographs are worthy of an exhibition in themselves.

Chapter Three is Heart and Soul, which has a strong maritime flavour, and is reflective of where Shewry’s food is currently heading, although again there are plenty of vegetarian creations.

His ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy shows in dishes such as Purslane Branch, Cucumbers, Pumpkin Seeds, where the stalks of purslane – itself a much ignored pasture  herb – are used for texture, flavour and visual unity. (You could perhaps substitute parsley stalks).

I loved his tale of collecting purslane for an hour in the morning with his young son before dropping him off at kindergarten and tacking the highway to the city.

Amongst fish there are Wild Weeds and Salted Fish; Abalone, Seaweeds and Salt from the Same Environment; Striped Trumpeter, Young Leek, Salt Berries, Pork Fat (with the fish sourced in Tasmania, for occasional appearances on his menu).

Shewry advocates that much underutilised Ocean Jacket (leatherjacket) which he now uses instead of other fin fish species which are becoming endangered through overfishing.  He bakes it with almonds, rosemary, picked lemons and garlic.

For red meat lovers there’s Bennett’s Wallaby, with Bunya Pine, Begonia (his grandfather hails from Tasmania and memories of delicious and healthy wallaby meat are strong), and the ultimate Maori hangi, although details of preparation for this are perhaps better found on the internet – it’s more a story here than a recipe.

For desserts there are Hay Ice Cream (with Canadian Grilled Cheese); Violet Crumble, a deconstructed recreation of a childhood favourite treat; Pineapple in Salt, Cream of Flora; Strawberries, Soured Cream. Strawberry Oil and Ruby’s Rhubarb, named after the youngest of his three children.

This might be a good section to start experimenting at home, as the components of several of these recipes can be made and enjoyed separately, although the Pukeko’s Egg, named after a New Zealand swamp hen and recreated in chocolate, is probably best left to the professionals.

The Native Fruits of Australia dish looks and sounds a triumph, and I’d love to see more of our chefs use these in their menus, and give some Australian character to their dishes, especially for international visitors.

The Basics section at the end is a gem. Stocks (of course, and including Duck, Wallaby, Pork and Lamb as well as the more usual Chicken); Black Sesame Oil; Onion Powder; Smoked Oil and other things to give your cooking an edge.

Hidden amongst the recipes you’ll pick up plenty of useful tips too, like using vitamin C powder (ascorbic acid) in dishes for flavour and to prevent oxidisation and discolouring – especially handy when you are making fruit or vegetable juice (Shewry uses natural Vitamin C, which breaks down when heated however).

Helpfully, there’s a glossary with some stockists at the end, both for equipment and any ingredients which may be unfamiliar or hard to source.

Origin leaves me inspired, in awe and somewhat frustrated at the same time, now that I realise it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to taste these dishes in full, barring making reservations a year or two in advance! 

Yet you can cook at least some of the dishes in part, and get plenty of ideas for better utilisation of your food from many sources, both wild and cultivated.

Perhaps someone may also take inspiration and produce a wild food recipe book for those who are suffering economically in Australia at present, as many of the bases for Shewry’s dishes are available free on roadsides, in paddocks (ask the farmer first, of course), on the seashore or in the sea, and are far more nutritious than many commercially-grown or made foods.

But back to Origin – truly it seems this is only the beginning for Ben Shewry, and shows what can be done with talent, training, drive and total focus, and the backing of a supportive team and family.

Congratulations to the author, the photographer and all concerned for a magnificent book, which I and many others will treasure and delve into for years.

 

Origin by Ben Shewry, with photography by Colin Page is published by Murdoch Books (Sydney, NSW, 2012; hc, 292 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$95.

Origin can be purchased online from Booko.com here »
 

Ed: This tasting panel concept forms the basis of Australia’s long-standing Wine Show system, vs wine scores by individual wine critics.

Photographer Colin Page's website – full of stunning landscape and food photos – can be found here www.colinpage.com.au

Origin (which shared the VisitVineyards.com award for Top Cookbook of 2012) was also awarded Best Australian cookbook in the Authors and Chefs category of the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards in February 2012.

 

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