By WENDY HARGREAVES, writing for FINE FOOD AUSTRALIA
The hāngī -inspired potato dish that propelled Attica chef Ben Shewry onto the global stage has been reimagined as a spud-shaped chocolate.
Australia’s most celebrated chef has partnered with Melbourne chocolate house Koko Black to create 10 chocolatey renditions of his most celebrated dishes.
And the restaurant’s iconic “Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth in Which it Was Grown” was the most challenging of the lot for Ben and Koko Black’s Master Chocolatier Remco Brigou – even more difficult than Attica’s iconic Lamb Brick (yes… lamb and chocolate together).
“It was a real labour of love to make (the potato),” Ben explained to guests at the launch in Attica’s dining room.
“If you think of a potato, you think it’s such an easy thing to make a form of it, but it’s actually very difficult to make a chocolate look like a potato. You can easily make it look like a bean or a peanut, but getting a chocolate to look like a potato is challenging, and involved many, many rounds of moulding and development.
“Eventually, out of frustration, I went through all the potatoes we had at Attica, about 150 kilos, and I chose the one that looked like the most potato potato. I gave it to Remco, and said please make a potato that looks like this.”
Attempts at 3D scanning, drawings and hand-modelling eventually led to a small, perfectly-formed potato (pictured with the original dish) – dusted with dehydrated spud skin in a nod to its earth-cooked past.
The two chefs realised early in the process that potato was a “terrible” as a chocolate filling, so they opted for an ashy goats’ curd ganache to capture the smokiness of a hāngī.
Several guests at this week’s launch said the potato’s chocolate/ganache texture reminded them of a grown-up Cream Egg, with a much more sophisticated, slightly savoury flavour profile.
Ben said he was delighted by the sweet version of the of the earth-cooked potato dish, first created in 2008 as a tribute to the hāngīs of his childhood in New Zealand.
The potato is among 10 dishes in chocolate form, including a Attica’s Croc Fat Butter (created after he discovered it was a waste product at crocodile farms). This innovative spread the base of a smooth, chewy caramel with a hint of mountain leaf pepper, sitting on a croc fat shortbread, all coated in milk chocolate (with croc scale design on top, in case you missed the reptile reference). The flavour balance, texture and lingering savoury notes are a triumph.
In another mind-bending combination, Ben and Remco reimagined Attica’s Lamb Brick, the dish that set Melbourne alight on Ben’s very first menu (when just four people worked at the restaurant, compared to 40 today). They found the sweet spot by combining flossed lamb and dehydrated parsnip over a base of roasted pine nut gianduja, all coated in dark chocolate with a sprinkle of caramelised coriander seeds, glazed mint and Tasmanian sea salt.
Like the croc fat caramel, the Lamb Brick messes with your head with every bite, hinting at those sweet, caramelised bits of a Sunday roast.
Certain crowd favourites will be Attica’s Plight of the Bees (named one of the most complex desserts in the world back in 2013), the Secret Basque Cheesecake, a delicate gem, and the Lily Pilly Ripe, a rainforest cherry and coconut rough. The “Benmite and Crackers” are a salty-sweet taste bomb with Ben’s version of Vegemite (which he created because he can’t tolerate Australia’s favourite yeast spread) on toasty chocolate crackers.
“Before this, I knew pretty much nothing about chocolate, even though I’d been a pastry chef for six years,” Ben said. “Pastry is very different to being a chocolatier. It’s a whole other world. For me, it was a really humbling process and really exciting because I had an opportunity to learn from these incredible people.”
Ben admitted it was a long courtship with Koko Black’s owner Simon Crowe, who also owns vegan burger chain Grill’d.
He initially said no to Simon’s collaboration proposal, but warmed to the entrepreneur’s “never give up” attitude.
“I’m really serious about partnerships,” Ben said. “I’m not mucking around. I’m not going to just work with anybody. I’m incredibly fussy.
“It’s really important for people to know that this is not slapping a brand on a bar of chocolate. I’m a big believer of contributing to culture, and I’m not a believer in putting products into the marketplace that are not needed. I’m not going to do something that’s already served really well.”
Ben admits the collaboration has been a huge step for Attica, but he feels confident in the partnership because he set strong expectations from the start – and spent time on due diligence.
“As a company, we’ve got a lot better at knowing whether people truly want a collaboration, or whether they want an association, and they’re quite different,” he said.
“They invited me over to see the (Koko Black) kitchen. I got there a little bit early, and the door was locked, but one of the staff arrived and asked me ‘what are you here for?’. I said, ‘I’m just coming over for a meeting’. They didn’t know who I was, which was great, and they offered to walk me around the back.
“So as we were walking around, I ask them all these questions and basically interrogated this person on this walk to get a sense of what it’s like to work for the company. It’s not just about the product. It’s not just about what you make. It’s a wholistic view of all things.
“It was really important for me to have this interaction, unfiltered, with this lovely young worker at Koko Black. Those things matter. A lot of people think they don’t matter, but they all matter. And they all contribute to something bigger if you can get them to line up nicely.
“It’s really simple. A lot of people overlook the simplest principles of working with great people at every turn.”
Ben has always infused his cooking with personal stories, and each of the 10 Attica chocolates has a yarn to tell.
And in good news for diners who might not be able to afford Attica’s $360pp degustation menu, three of Ben’s standout chocolates (Finger Lime Clouds, Ben’s Rocky Road and Plight of the Bees) will be sold at Koko Black stores for $19.95 each, or together in a “gift cube” for $65.
“One of things I’ve learned in the last couple of years is how much of a desire there is out there in the community for recipes and products from Attica that aren’t as high priced as the tasting menu,” Ben said. “Those chocolates will be around for two years. We’re really excited about that part… just as excited as the crazy bigger project.”
So what, exactly, is the big project?
“Stories in Chocolate by Ben Shewry” is a huge, luxe gift box containing a 10-course degustation for two with a serving plate, a Marlux pepper mill containing black pepper and ants (to accompany one of the courses) and a curated Spotify playlist to enjoy during the tasting. Koko Black has made 1000 of these boxes, which are expected to sell out soon after the September 5 release via Kokoblack.com.
- Bread and Butter Media‘s Wendy Hargreaves was a guest of Attica and Koko Black at the collaboration launch.