Fearsome foodie

Shelley Gare’s Weekend Austraian Magazine cover story on Melbourne Chef d’jour Shannon Bennett isn’t a ground breaking piece of literary journalism but it is a very good example of a lively, meticulously researched and well structured profile that also tells a wider story.Gare inserts a bit too much of herself into the feature for my liking but she is great at building in anecdotal detail and description. After a story about a Barcelona chef who has “has taken a green olive, pureed it, and then bound it back together with gelatine so that it has the mouth-feel of egg yolk but still tastes of olive,” Gare introduces Bennett’s restaurant Vue de Monde:

But the Little Collins Street restaurant has a similar devotion to detail and surprise. It serves a water, for example, that has been harvested from the cleanest clouds on the planet. It’s called Cape Grim Water, it comes from air blown up from the Antarctic over empty, icy ocean, and it’s offered to diners who are drinking particularly fine wines and want an absolutely neutral palate. The clouds form when the cold air meets the warm air over the north-west cape of Tasmania. There are just zero to 500 particles per cubic centimetre in the air, say the water’s bottlers, compared with 5000 to 10,000 particles in Sydney’s and 10 times that in China’s.Once collected, the water goes straight into tanks and is never allowed to come into contact again with the pedestrian air you and I breathe. It makes me think of larks’ tongues and peeled grapes, but when I finally taste this bottled rainwater it is like drinking dew from a meadow. Indeed, given the ingenuity and expense that goes into gathering it, I start thinking this water is pretty reasonable at $11.50 a 750ml bottle ($7.50 recommended retail). That is exactly the effect luxury is supposed to have upon us.

Gare spent four days at Vue de Monde (yes it is spelled that way she tells us because of a misprint on early stationery that they decided to stay with) and she builds in some fine descriptions of the place and of the chefs at work:

My first glimpse of Vue de Monde is at 10am one Tuesday when the high white space of the restaurant is empty, the cool dark pierced only by the pale green tracery on the water glasses and the glint from the hand-forged Laguiole Inox cutlery from France. But already, the long open kitchen is flooded with golden light, like a stage. There are heavy mirrors suspended above the two marble-topped “passes” – where the food is passed from the kitchen, assembled on plates, and passed to the waiters. The mirrors reflect the chefs as they do their prepping. Some have been at it since eight this morning. They will work until close to midnight, then be here again early tomorrow. At this time of day, the tableau looks like a foodie version of Rembrandt’s study of dark and light, The Night Watch.It’s also the time of day for hours of drudge work. Apprentice Matt Butcher is starting on a 20kg bag of potatoes which must be peeled, sliced top and bottom and then put through the French fries cutter. A young English chef-de-partie, Alasdair Hancock, is cutting potatoes into half-moon slices, and then piling them into pyramids for potato mille-feuilles to go with the paper-thin Wagyu. On another day, three chefs take two hours to produce 48 vacuum-packed serves of Murray cod which will later be poached. It will be enough for about two days. A young kitchen-hand manfully surveys a massive tray of dark brown cooked hare legs which have to be turned into confit. A small pie stuffed with rare quail breast and quail mousse studded with foie gras cannot be baked until another chef-de-partie has scored its puff pastry lid 32 times.It reminds me of artisans hunched over their precious work, ruining eyesight, fingers, backs and shoulders as they create something they believe is a privilege to make. “Arthritis at 25,” Hancock says. “They don’t tell you that at college.”

This last para is also typical of the way she uses “quick quotes” to add personality and contrast to her reporting.Like all good profilers she has clearly interviewed a large number of people to get a handle on Bennett. She uses them to build up a picture of the determined and demanding 31 year old. But she uses their quotes selectively.Her structure is quite complex and she meanders in and out of anecdotes, comment, background and interview with her subject but she maintains a beautiful sense of flow with smart connecting devices.

But that’s Crazy Talk

Sharon Weinberger’s extraordinary feature for the Washington Post Magazine about “TIs” – people who belive they are “Targeted Individuals” of government mind control experiments – is a fine example of suspending judgement and allowing a sympathetic portrait to emerge from an unusal story. She does not avoid the humour in the story but she never laughs out loud at her subject’s expense:

IF HARLAN GIRARD IS CRAZY, HE DOESN’T ACT THE PART. He is standing just where he said he would be, below the Philadelphia train station’s World War II memorial — a soaring statue of a winged angel embracing a fallen combatant, as if lifting him to heaven. Girard is wearing pressed khaki pants, expensive-looking leather loafers and a crisp blue button-down. He looks like a local businessman dressed for a casual Friday — a local businessman with a wickedly dark sense of humor, which had become apparent when he said to look for him beneath “the angel sodomizing a dead soldier.” At 70, he appears robust and healthy — not the slightest bit disheveled or unusual-looking. He is also carrying a bag.

It is also beautifully structured with the story of Harlan Girard as the anchor of the narrative, but far from the only voice. Weinberger introduces us to other TIs and pursues research and reporting that tries to determine what exactly the Pentagon is doing in the area of mind control. It is an excellent example of a feature that combines research into a broader social issue and intimately told stories of those whom it affects.In the end it comes full circle and ends with a celebration of Girard’s survival:

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.”That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”