Shannon Bennett: A Story of Patience, Theatre, and Local Foods

by Amanda McDougall
Antoinette Bruno Francoise Villeneuve
June 2010

Shannon Bennett isn’t just a chef any more. He’s a business man, an advocate for sustainable restaurant practices, and a storyteller. Since his fast and furious ascent to the top of the Australian food scene a decade ago, Bennett has learned a lot about running a restaurant and what it takes to become a great chef.

You could say that Bennett has always had a knack for telling a story—he did acquire his apprenticeship at the Melbourne Hyatt by bending the truth about his age (he was only 15 at the time). But the real story that Bennett wants to tell these days is about the regional Australian products he uses and the path of a dish from fleeting concept in the chef’s mind to plated, edible theatre in the dining room of his Melbourne restaurant.

Working under several of the world’s top Michelin-starred chefs in the beginning of his career (Albert Roux, John Burton Race, Marco Pierre White, and Alain Ducasse among them), and diligently studying and observing the works of chefs like Michel Bras, Michel Roux Jr., Andoni Aduriz, and René Redzepi, has sparked within Bennett a desire to find and tell his own story with his dishes.  

“All those guys have their own story to tell; I now know the answer to what a great restaurant is, and that really is to tell your own story. Sometimes it takes a while to know what that story is.” Bennett goes on, “I think that’s what chefs have missed for a long time…. in Australia, we’re just starting to realize that, yes, we can tell a story on a plate about where our ingredients come from.”

He’s found his voice after years of experimenting and pushing the boundaries of Aussie cuisine; it’s not just about him. The story surely includes his classically-based French training and his deep knowledge of what his customers like, but it also includes the perspectives of the top chefs in his kitchen and their backgrounds. But, perhaps most importantly, it tells the story of what Australian cuisine is and is going to become; highlighting the best of the region’s bounty, cooking it to perfection, and presenting it dramatically on a plate.

In more recent years, Bennett has increasingly embraced what Australia has to offer in terms of produce, proteins, and its multi-ethnic population. As he puts it: “I’m trying to get out of the mode of having a signature dish. I’m trying to say that our signature is that we’re serving seasonal food that tells a story. We’re trying to focus on the local. “

Beyond discovering the culinary treasure trove of his native land, he’s also found the “logic” of more sustainable, ecologically sound restaurant practices, like composting, growing his own produce, and energy efficiency. (He’s even started experimenting with heirloom seeds to recreate what he believes are the original peas.)

On this subject, Bennett isn’t just advocating, he’s also taking action; his flagship restaurant, Vue de monde, will call the rooftop terrace of the to-be rehauled Rialto building in Melbourne its home. From this perch, the restaurant will be able to generate all of its own energy via solar, wind, and waste power generators.

“I’m not one of those save-the-planet gurus… I’m just a normal human being just like you…. we should, as individuals, be doing more [for the environment], and that starts with me.” Bennett explains. “The main reason I’ve [agreed to move the restaurant] is that I want to make a statement about sustainability. We can actually be the first power neutral restaurant… where I can actually harness all the energy from the building itself—solar, wind, and waste and we can turn all of that into power and run the restaurant off of that. “

The move is in the making as of yet without a debut date, but Bennett doesn’t mind the wait. “The big difference from when I first started when I was 24 to where I am now (I’m 34) is I’ve slowed down a lot in many ways. I’m not so much in a rush… I’m comfortable now knowing that we’re on a bit of a journey.” In the meantime, he’ll continue to innovate, advocate, and tell delicious tales with local ingredients.