When I came here from New Zealand 15 years ago with my wife Natalia, and $500 in our pockets, I had never visited Melbourne before. What I knew was that I wanted to expand my knowledge of cooking and find a home.
Growing up where I did with the people I did (back-country NZ with hard, no-bull types, who wouldn't suffer fools but were always prepared to help others in genuine need), I wanted to live in a city that had a touch of that small community vibe, where people weren't in such a rush that they wouldn't give another human the time of day. In my mind, there is no worse feeling in the world than living in a city that treats outsiders like they don't matter and where life feels more combative than collaborative.
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Arriving in Melbourne on November 5, 2002, and skateboarding around the city on my first day in 34-degree heat looking for a place to live, there was a feeling that anything could happen here, that there were countless opportunities and that the choice was mine to make.
As Natalia was working office hours, and I was working nights and weekends, I had an abundance of time to search the city for food and search I did. For three years I went everywhere looking for hidden gems. There probably wasn't a suburb or neighbourhood that I didn't visit in my quest to understand our food culture. From Sunshine to Sydney Road to Springvale, I discovered the rich diversity of cultures that coexist and make Melbourne the insanely great place to live, and eat in, that it is.
The benefit of travel has given me perspective and I sometimes wonder if we really know how fortunate we are as Melburnians and Australians for rich food choices. I'm not just talking about "fancy" restaurants like mine – I'm talking about scratching the surface beneath the gloss a little.
With each piece of food these people produce, they are making a better life for themselves.Ben Shewry
I'm talking about the most delicious Malaysian I've eaten in Australia on the outskirts of Melbourne in Wantirna South at The Straits Cafe. I'm talking about Bruce Pascoe, Bunurong man of the Kulin Nations clan, who is currently preparing Australia's first crop in many years of indigenous Kangaroo grass seed to produce bread close to his home in Mallacoota. I'm also talking about the most ridiculously good pork souvlaki I've ever tasted at Kalimera Souvlaki Art in Oakleigh and I'm definitely talking about Duc Nga – a former Vietnamese refugee who was orphaned at 14 and quietly makes beautiful tofu out of his small shop in Sunshine. With each piece of food these people produce, they are making a better life for themselves, their family and therefore their community – the same thing I'm attempting to do at Attica. Melbourne is the common thread, and the most amazing people and experiences exist here – just raise your eyes from your immediate surrounds and see what I see, there is true wonder to be discovered.
Later that first summer on a 40-degree Sunday, Natalia and I were sitting in shallow water at Black Rock Beach surrounded by thousands of Australians and there was this din in the air – the sound of them all talking to one another – strangers talking to strangers, having a good old aussie yack. "How are ya, maaate?" "Yaah, real goood maaate", like a giant pack of cockatoos. For a couple of fairly quiet Kiwis it was a real spectacle, being there in that moment. It's a sight, sound and feeling of camaraderie I'd never experienced in any other place in the world and will never forget.
When I think back to that day, I think of inclusiveness, welcomeness and a feeling that you belonged and you were wanted here, no matter that we were recent migrants with no reputation whatsoever. When I hear about the policies and rhetoric that some politicians put forth in regard to migrants and asylum seekers and the poor record Australia has in regards to these issues internationally, I have always felt their sentiment or policy doesn't reflect the feelings and humanity of the average Australian man or woman.
The memory of that day at Black Rock Beach would resurface in my life time and time again, as I experienced the love of our state and city and learned about the sort of place that my new home was, and would be in the future.
The above wasn't always this clear to me in the early days. As a head chef, I thought we lacked an identifiable food culture and I didn't want to reference other countries' way of doing things in food. As time passed, I realised that the openness of our culture to taste new preparations and the innate understanding of what quality is in our city would become my greatest asset. With almost every misstep I took in the kitchen, I was forgiven by a dining public who supported me and encouraged me. That is a truly unbelievable feeling and that is why Attica has become the restaurant that it has, because this city, state and country shaped it. That is why I've resisted every opportunity to do Attica elsewhere – both in Australia and internationally. Attica could only exist here in Victoria.
And so this week, as we welcome arguably the biggest restaurant event in the world to our city, it feels like we are coming full circle. Ten years ago I couldn't have dreamed that such a thing would come to pass – the World's 50 Best Restaurants being held in Melbourne and the impending arrival of some of the most inspiring and influential chefs on the planet.
So, good people of Melbourne and Victoria, as we welcome these great food minds to our country, take inspiration from them but stand proud, continue to back who you are and find the courage to push for creative independence but most importantly cherish the opportunity to learn, acknowledge and pay respect to all aspects of your culture.
Because this culture is unique, beautiful, and only exists here. Melbourne, you are truly world class.
Ahead of the World's 50 Best Restaurant awards in Melbourne on Wednesday April 5th, Ben Shewry is guest-editing today's edition of Good Food in The Age.