Attica owner-chef Ben Shewry's guide to opening a restaurant

Ben Shewry of Attica in Ripponlea.
Ben Shewry of Attica in Ripponlea. Photo: Simon Schluter

Aspiring young restaurateurs shouldn't be afraid of starting small, says star chef Ben Shewry. But they'll need lashings of grit.

Hey young chefs, Ben Shewry's got something to say to you: do not be afraid to roll the dice.

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Shewry, currently the only chef on the World's 50 Best list with his Attica restaurant, believes Generation Instagram is less likely to push the boat out and take a risk on a small business – a cheap restaurant, say, without a multi-million dollar fit-out. Fewer chefs, he thinks, are willing to back themselves and their talent.

Part of it, he blames on today's need to open a fully realised restaurant, complete with all the bells and whistles. "If you went back 20 years, it was a much more common thing to see a young cook or waiter open a very basic place with a view to make a more fully developed place in the future. They didn't have backers, but they had dreams and they started with what they had."

"When was the last time you went to a restaurant with a super-modest fit-out, where they did the whole thing for probably $50,000 but you could tell there was something magic there? What I see now are completely formed restaurants opening that cost millions of dollars and it's harder than ever for small businesses to compete with that. Think about, for example, the way Tetsuya started and has evolved, or Attica, or Marque, back in the day."

"I want to be remembered as somebody with a fondness for being kind. I don't want to be remembered as an arsehole."

He doesn't deny we're living in a very different world from the one he started in. The Kiwi chef, who's been working in kitchens since he was 10, believes anything can be done with the right amount of grit, determination and planning (see his recipe for success below), but he also recognises that we now live in a culture fuelled by "likes" and re-posts.

"I think with the immediacy of social media, there is less time for people to feel like they can get it right," he says. "And if you don't get it right within the first few weeks – which is impossible – or you get a bad review or a bunch of people on social not liking what you're doing, that's it. There's not that gestation period to learn how to do things."

"If I could offer one piece of advice," says Shewry who bought Attica outright two years ago, "it's that you need to have done time in all aspects of the restaurant before opening your own. Don't underestimate how important every job is." In just over a decade, Shewry's built Attica into the three-hat restaurant it is today. There's no part of the restaurant he hasn't tried working in at least once.

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"Unfortunately, sometimes as chefs we tend to think we're the most important thing in the restaurant. As you get older, you learn there's no one thing that's more important than another. And the greatest help a chef can give themselves is a really fundamental understanding of how a restaurant runs."

It's these broad skills that give Shewry the confidence to dig his heels in when he has to. "I want to feel good about the things I do. I want to have the ability to have this creative outlet, and I want it unedited." That unerring dedication to his craft that makes him the chef and restaurateur he is. What he doesn't understand is why there aren't more young chefs out to do the same thing, with similar verve.

Maybe, though, the pressure is a little off-putting.

Attica as it was 11 years ago.
Attica as it was 11 years ago. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

Shewry also believes the reason there aren't more young operators going out on their own is a lack of drive among young Australians. In contrast he is seeing "dozens of chefs from different countries who want to sacrifice and improve their life and obtain their own start independently."

To be a successful young business operator in 2017 you really need to have a few strings to your bow. You can't just be a good jobbing chef cooking delicious food. You need to be able wield a calculator, and in Shewry's case (he has just renovated Attica) you need to be able to wield sledgehammers and jack hammers. You need to be a social media expert, an HR manager, and a counsellor. And you need to be fearless.

Shewry reckons you can open a restaurant for less than $100,000, but you need to bring the fury in both fists. "If I were doing this all over again knowing what I know now, I would be looking for a very basic place that was already equipped that I could modify easily. But I'm also the son of a carpenter. I can do a lot of stuff myself and to a high level. If you don't have those skills it's going to be harder. And more expensive."

Inside the newly revamped Attica.
Inside the newly revamped Attica. Photo: Tom Blachford

The risk. The heartache. What force would drive anyone to do this to themselves? Why not just stick $100,000 in a sack and throw it into the Yarra? Because, for the right type of person, it's worth it. "I am more in love with the act of running a restaurant and being a cook than I ever have been," says Shewry. "If you're patient and you save, you can achieve a lot of things. Not having to ask when you want to do something, having complete creative control. And hopefully in the long term you earn a wage that is reflective of your time and your talent and your standing in the industry. That's the goal. And that is fair."

Recipe for success 

The Ben Shewry Guide To Opening a Restaurant (and living like a legend)

Pick the right life partner

That's the key to anything, really. If you don't get this part right you can kiss any hopes of success goodbye. I think with relationships as well as running complicated businesses you need to be able to keep a cool head, solve problems, and resolve conflicts. See each other's point of view, understand why one partner might be really annoyed and vice versa and not just dismiss it. I've got to put myself in my wife Natalia's shoes, and vice versa. Fortunately we have the ability to understand each other pretty well after so many years, despite all the things that can kind of beat people (working together, having a family together). Mutual respect and trust. That's it.

Attica's emu's egg dish.
Attica's emu's egg dish. Photo: Eddie Jim

Find a mentor

I got myself a mentor who is a very successful business person but also a very ethical person. He was able to mentor me in those early months acquiring Attica and helped me vastly. I think in our industry we don't do that enough. We don't ask for outside help. My dream is for Attica to become one of the great small businesses in Australia and a role model for other small businesses. I'm not there yet, but I'm learning.

Always pay your bills

I think there are certain things you can do in your business to make people feel they want to be a part of it. For instance, restaurants are notorious for not paying their bills. So one of the first rules I made was that no matter what situation we were in financially, we paid all suppliers outright every Wednesday. What that does is create goodwill, and I think that's really good business practice. I don't ask for a better price. I look at the ingredient and I say "OK, this is the quality that it is, this is the value that it is. I can fit it into my food cost (which is a very loose term at Attica). Yep, I can live with this, I love this ingredient, I think it's going to blow people away." But equally to the supplier, if you're telling me you can get away with charging $25 per kilogram, you need to know I'm very serious about what you're offering me with the same consistency and quality the whole time.

Make a business plan

You know what? I spent six months making a business plan for Attica before I bought it. I tried to knuckle down on everything that could concern me about that restaurant prior to me owning it. I have a certain ambition about how the business would deal with people on a financial level and I just wanted to make sure it was as right as it could be. You shouldn't use the goodwill of other people or your reputation. You have to have a great business plan. Most people wouldn't know I spent all that time working on a business plan for Attica – a restaurant that I am already running and that is already successful. And now in my second year of owning it, because of my business plan, I've been able to renovate. Without one, I would have just been floating. Set short, mid and long term goals. Factor in risk. Basically, every single thing to do with your business should be in that plan. There should be no detail too fine. And if you build this strong business plan, you can then take that to other people. If it's really good and solid, they'll believe in it too.

Have the nerve to hang on, even when it really hurts

We've all seen the sad stories of businesses going under and suppliers being burned. They're always the first. Hospitality staff are so invested in their jobs. You could have been cooking the best food in the world but it still would have happened because it was poor management and poor ownership making bad decisions and didn't have the nerve or the capital to hang in there. I don't know how you recover from that sort of failure. People do, but I'm not prepared to fail. Ever. I've felt that before. I'm not going back there. Not ever. So I will do whatever it takes.

A little suffering is not a bad thing

This job and this life is all-consuming. And I want to be remembered as somebody with a fondness for being kind. I don't want to be remembered as an arsehole. Honestly, I think if you've suffered a little bit, it's not a bad thing. It gives you perspective and understanding of other people's situations and you really need that if you're a leader. You need to try and understand the people around you. I think I've been through a bit – some illness has affected our family and I went through a dark time a few years ago. I think it gives me empathy for others that perhaps I didn't have before. Sometimes it's really nice to just take a step back and actually just listen.

Work for the right people

Work for good people. Work for people that will teach you more than just cooking or working hard. Work in a business where you can have the ability to do the ordering and communicate with people. Work in a place where the owners will share that kind of information with you. And then just be prepared to do the hard yards.

Know when you're ready...

I really think it's the rare circumstance when somebody is prepared to open a restaurant with less than 10 years' experience. I bought my first restaurant when I was 38. You need to do it when you're ready. When you've reached a point when every decision that the owner or head chef makes frustrates you. Or you have so many ideas of your own that you just can't wait to see them realised. You have to be prepared to say "I've been to some sort of business school. I understand the simple fundamentals of accounting. I've got a good support crew. I've got a good mentor in business. I've got a great mentor as a chef. I've got great mentors in front of house. I also have an absolutely amazing lawyer, an amazing accountant, and I have other people as sounding boards". These are the sort of things you need to tick off.

Learn to love your fellow man

I really love people. You'd be ill-advised to open a restaurant if you didn't.