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Laura Espitia

Autobiographical Argument
February 12, 2016

Picture a small black wall space, marked by a tiny sign reading “Attica”, among a strip of
brick and mortar shops in a suburban part of Melbourne, Australia. Here, hidden in the most
unassuming of places, a culinary superstar works and creates. Ben Shewry, born and bred in a
remote location on the North Island of New Zealand, has made his mark on the culinary world
with his innovative and narrative inspired edible creations. Within this context, be got the
opportunity to tell his story in the documentary series “Chefs Table- Ben Shewry” where he
crafts a narrative - “the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time
sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (Palczewski 118)- which translates
the message that it is through our willingness to explore our personal memory- such as our
connection to nature, family and our cultural roots- and by consciously investigating our
emotional reaction to these experiences, that we may be best able to find a unique voice to craft
meaning in our lives and the lives of others.

The documentary begins by introducing the audience to Ben, who’s ethos of culinary
excellence is established immediately with the fact that Attica was named the 32nd best restaurant
in the world on the San Pellegrino “Worlds 50 Best of 2014” list. He includes interviews with
food critic Tony Tran and writer Mat Preston. Preston was also a judge for the “Worlds 50 best
of 2013.” Tan describes the dining experience at Attica as “pure theater” a “total seduction of
courses after courses, eating there is like looking at someone who has put his soul into the food.”
Depicted as a man with family values, a hard work ethic, and a rule of staying true to himself,
Ben makes himself very likable from the get go. He is praised by food critic Mat Preston “Ben is
not your typical, Ferrari driving, supermodel dating chef.” Instead, Ben focuses on the
importance of family. “I’ve learned after success… none of that means much, what matters is
that I treat my children and my friends and my wife with respect.” He is a humble character,
honest and vulnerable as he recounts the experiences that have shaped his character and
catalyzed his success.

The film appeals to audiences’ emotions (pathos) by focusing on issues that are relatable
to many. It successfully taps into their personal fears, curiosities, or sources of joy. Ben talks
about the importance of family and how the job of running a restaurant and wanting to be
successful took valuable time away from his kids. “I wasn’t there in those earlier years, and it
cuts me to say that.” During this shot the camera is pointed at a side angle, so that the viewer
sees him looking out in the distance. His eyes crinkle; there is the tiny quiver of his chin and a
sad, wet gaze of his eyes as the light shines on his face. When referring to the experience of
drowning he uses simple but strong and relatable language “I remember how lonely I was, and
how upset I was, and how angry I felt that this was going to be the end.” He shares the moment
when he almost drowned to death, and sweet childhood stories ladled with nostalgia. He is very
clear about the causation of specific emotional events as they led him to find his culinary voice.
Within this plot “the chain of causation of events within a narrative,” (Palczewski 129) he
delineates the arc of a story that crosses though his childhood, to a near drowning, to the birth of
his son, foraging in the Australian native bush and a transformative encounter with a fisherman
named Larry.
He uses the personal memory of his childhood as an inspiration for his food. As a child,
Ben’s closest neighbors were fifteen minutes away; his parents cultivated in him a love of nature
and family. “When I was eight years old and my sister Tess was six, we tramped two hours from
the house by ourselves, went to the native bush and camped overnight. We understood which
plants we could eat; we picked wild berries, blueberries, and fished for eels in the stream.” His
family was different, they spent a lot of time outside and cooked large meals by digging fire pits
that were then filled with sacks of food like potatoes, carrots and meat, reburied, and left to cook
under the hot ground and smoldering embers. He explains how these events shaped a lot of how
he thinks and feels about food in general.

The concept of personal memory is “the manner in which individuals remembers their
pasts” (Palczewski 119 ) which is well summated when Ben states “everything you’ve ever had,
everything you’ve ever tasted, makes up your memory palate.” He uses this palate to create new
dishes, finding inspiration when working with native Australian plants for which little is known
about. There are no recipes on the internet, no cookbooks to speak of. Ben endeavors to not only
explore these ingredients for himself, but to create a highly refined Australian cuisine. “The
connection to your roots is really one of the most important things of all, this is an important part
of our countries heritage, Australians should have a sense of pride in these ingredients, and they
should know what they taste like.”

Ben takes on the persona of not just a narrator or chef but an educator. In his search to
find a unique voice he has decided to find Australia’s unique culinary voice, to educate
Australians about the resources around them and the beauty and fruitfulness on the land. Not
only that, he wants to let his customers who are another audience experience the creative process
with. Tuesdays are experimental days. Because Attica is such a small restaurant, they don’t have
the luxury of having a test kitchen, so they have come up with a way to try out dishes that are
still being perfected. Attica invites customers to come in and eat at a reduced price, but from a
completely different menu. There are no guarantees. Ben presents his sours chef with the idea for
the menu the morning off, and they come up with the dishes in 10 hours. meaning that none had
the chance to be edited. I think this is an important part of how Ben extends his personal
revelations to provide meaning for others. He pulls the curtain back on the process of creating a
dish.

Ben as a rhetor chooses to create a text on three different platforms. There is the spoken
narrative itself, as he speaks to the camera in the film and verbally tells his story. His face
sometimes disappears but his voice continues over images that support and help the viewer to
better understand the narrative. His voice lends itself to a deeper, more intimate account where
Ben ushers the audience thought the shots of actual places he’s been to, places that have meaning
to the story, which in turn gives a sense of place to the audience. One feels as if his memories are
ones own. As if one were walking in his shoes as he recounts. Thus vivacity in an element well
embodied in this documentary. Vivacity is a sense of immediacy or presence created through the
use of descriptions, imagery, and colorful language that make an idea come alive. (Palczewski
127.)

The documentary uses the juxtaposition of bens narrative voice with the cinematic shots
to better created a sense of presence in the audience. One of Bens most defining experiences, one
that would later inspire his dish “sea tastes” was when be almost died while looking for muscles
off a cove in new Zealand with his father. Ben describes walking through a small tunnel that led
out into a beach. The screen shows what can be assumed to be that same tunnel from his
memory, and the camera moves through it, as if the viewer were walking in. As he describes the
first wave hitting him, the camera is placed in the water to show the waves hitting the lens, and
then it submerges. Ben recounts being pushed under by a second and a third wave. And the
camera follows the same motion, providing a great visual supplement to incite the viewers’
emotion. “I swim to a reef with a lot of muscles on it. My family was playing on the shore and I
had my back to the sea, a wave came and it knocked me over and it dragged me across the reef. I
came up for air and another wave hit me and it pushed me down again and it bashed me, I came
up again and a third wave had come and it held me down. And I was drowning.”

To another degree, the food itself is text; each individual dish he creates has a story
behind it. It is important to note that the filming and editing of the documentary was not done
solely by Ben, but just like any other published book that get edited it’s very rare that the final
product be completely untouched by contributors. Furthermore, I think Ben has the ultimate
editorial authority because he is the absolute source of the material, the film editors can only
work with what he has given them. Therefore the content is coming solely from himself and his
personal memory. What he chooses not to disclose cannot be known by any. “I’m trying to take
people back to a time when people who loved them cooked for them in a way that was really
meaningful and really satisfying.

As we move through the story, we get a sense of place with every scene. The story takes
on the Narratives have “several important functions, including the formation of memory and the
creation of a sense of cultural identity and community.” (Palczewski)

Within such multidimensional rhetorical texts, bens persona is also multifaceted. A


rhetorical persona is the character, role, identity, authority, and image a rhetor constructs and
performs during a rhetorical act. (Palczewski 150.) Bens’ persona is that of the narrator of the
documentary; he uses the medium of his voice and his language to vividly describe the events in
his story and to explain himself to the audience. His Australian accent and unique methods of
expression (he calls the wilderness the “native bush” and uses “knock up” instead of wake up)
add authenticity to his character and reminds the viewer of that sense of place. He is able to
harness the tool of inflection to project emotion, and his uses of language play a vital role in
establishing his character. His rhetoric is measured and highly descriptive. He takes care to add
detail when recounting a story. His values are evident by the sheer amount of times he
unconsciously uses words like success, family, time, culinary voice, roots. It allows the audience
members (myself included) to understand the central pillars of this man’s personality. We
understand him as a chef, father, son and sibling; A man with the drive to succeed for the sake of
his children and as a man who is deeply retrospective in his creative approach. We can derive all
of these things because on the narrative dimension, Ben has much more control over his message
as compared to the message his food may relay.

When we look at Ben’s persona as a chef in the context of his food as rhetoric, Ben
doesn’t have the luxury of language to tell a story; rather he endeavors to capture the essence of
the story within the food. This is where the artistic talent may be appreciated. Ben must carefully
select ingredients and composes the presentation of the dish on the plate just so. He creates
symbolism in the colors and shapes he uses in the dish. A symbol is an arbitrary representation of
something else, a word or image that represents a thing, thought, or action (Palczewski 55.) Ben
talks about a dish created from his experience of almost drowning called “sea tastes” he
describes this as his first moment of creating something himself that wasn’t like other things that
other people were creating. “I had tasted other dishes that had seafood elements in them but
none of them really invoked in me a strong sense of the sea. Not many people know the feeling
of drowning either. Having salt water stuffed down your throat and up your nose and being held
under by a force greater than you. I wanted to create a dish that evoked that sensation in someone
eating it”

Works Cited:

Palczewski, Catherine Helen., Richard Ice, and John Fritch. Rhetoric in Civic Life. State College,
PA: Strata Pub., 2012. Print.

Chefs Table. Dir. Clay Jeter. Perf. Ben Shewry. Netflix, 2015. Online Film.