Twenty-one days or less. That’s how long Ben Shewry of Attica fame had left on the clock before everything he had built would crumble and Australia’s best restaurant would cease to exist.
It took the New Zealander the best part of three decades to establish himself among the upper echelon of chefs on the planet. And it took a pandemic to almost strip it all away from him.
With the Victorian government closing the doors on the hospitality industry midway through March due to COVID-19, Shewry spent his 43rd birthday paralysed by fear. International guests had already cancelled in droves in the past fortnight. And then the restrictions went from a reduction in patrons to turning the lights off for the foreseeable future.
The domino effect
Shewry had built Attica – the nondescript restaurant in the unremarkable Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea – into a critically-acclaimed fine dining institution that attracts gourmands from around the globe, but everything he had built looked set to collapse. Despite being ranked on the World’s 50 best restaurants list six times in the past decade, and as high as No.20 and no lower than No. 84 since 2010, Attica must be full five nights a week, every week to survive.
It is a brutal reality of fine dining, and it is the reason why Shewry was petrified.
“I had a day on the 15th of March, which was my birthday, and that was the day that COVID really came home and it looked like everything would be stripped away from me, everything that I’ve worked so hard for. I’ll be honest, I was absolutely terrified,” explains Shewry.
“I haven’t really admitted this to anybody, but I had that one day where it was my birthday and I’m celebrating it with my partner Kylie and my three children, and I just felt absolutely terrified inside – I thought it was all over.”
“I could have understood it if it had of been of my own making; if I had of made terrible errors in business that had led to my downfall; I would have been able to accept that. This thing came and it came out of nowhere.”
At $310 per head during normal trading times, Attica may cater to those born with a silver spoon in mouth, but Shewry certainly wasn’t born with one in his.
He has had to scrap for every opportunity his whole career. It took years for Attica to establish itself in Melbourne, let alone on the world stage. At times, when the 60-seat restaurant was close to empty, Attica didn’t look close to surviving.
That was back when Shewry combined his European training with Thai dishes, after working under David Thompson who opened Nahm in London in 2001, which became the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin star.
But it didn’t work.
It was Shewry’s idea of finding a voice using indigenous Australian ingredients foraged from near and far that Attica entrenched itself as the best restaurant in this corner of the globe.
It hasn’t made the pandemic any easier to stomach, but that inner resolve, plus the lessons of a recent divorce helped drag him out of bed the day after his birthday and flick on fight mode.
“I had this one really dark day and that’s all I allowed myself. The next day I thought to myself, you’ve had to fight for everything you’ve ever had, nothing has ever been given to you. Are you just going to take it? I decided I wasn’t going to take it,” says Shewry.
“The next day I went to work and we started fighting. That’s a strong word ‘fighting’, but that’s really motivating to say this is some sort of battle you’ve got to overcome. I’ve gone at it as hard as I can, with everything I’ve got. That means you’ve got to work in excess of 100 hours a week since the beginning of this.”
“It has been absolutely the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced in my life. But the bottom line is, if we didn’t change, we would have gone broke. That is the simplest way of putting it. That would have been in a matter of weeks.”
A welcomed change
So, how does a fine dining restaurant survive in the current climate? They open a bakeshop. They create an ‘at-home’ set menu. And they sell t-shirts. Three simple ideas turbocharged with Attica brainpower.
The bakeshop isn’t your local school fete set-up. It has Davidson plum sweet scrolls and vegemite scrolls (but not as you know them). It has cheesecake that is worth the trek. And pull apart garlic bread that makes you wonder if you’ve ever actually eaten garlic bread before.
Then there are the ‘at home’ options that have allowed the many who have tried and failed to land a coveted Attica reservation, and the large section of the population who can’t afford or would never contemplate outlaying so much just on dinner, to finally taste Attica’s delights.
They include seared rare kangaroo with saltbush, spice-crusted lamb shoulder, the iconic potato cooked in the earth, as well as a couple of sweet treats for dessert.
These options are delivered by Attica’s front of house staff who arrive on your doorstep dressed to the nines – as they would if the dining room was still operating – while you wait enthusiastically in your ugg boots to sink your teeth into Shewry’s work.
“That [ability to cater to a wider audience] has been a tremendous thing – I noticed that in the very first week we started to do this. Our business model before was completely different. It was based on people coming and spending $310 when we closed. That’s obviously a world apart from buying something for eight or nine dollars,” says Shewry.
“I reckon I’ve learnt more in business in the last month than I have in the last two years. It is a funny thing to say you want to run a business that is inclusive but at $310 that is always going to exclude a really large percentage of the population. So, this initiative really does open us up to a whole different audience.”
Right now, survival is the goal for everyone, from fine dining restaurants to hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood cafes. But when the storm eventually passes, Attica will be different.
Shewry expects to eventually return to the business that made him one of the best in the business, but he anticipates Attica will have to change its price point and consider continuing their ‘at home’ delivery concept until things go back to normal.
“I don’t see the Attica of old opening as a restaurant for a really long time. I definitely fully intend to reopen it, but you have to be smart about it,” says Shewry.
“Attica can only exist when it is completely booked out five nights a week for months. That is the only way it can exist because the costs are so astronomically high. It is not to say this current business model is better – it is definitely not – but it is enabling us to tread water and think about our future plans and keep our people employed.”
Shewry isn’t out of the woods yet – no one is – but it feels like the worst of it may be behind us. And no matter what the future holds, his team will be ready to combat it. They haven’t forgotten the three-week shot clock, but it is no longer ticking so loudly.