LUNCH WITH . . . BEN NAPARSTEK

The Age

Saturday February 19, 2011

BEN NAPARSTEK sees his Monthly gig as long-term, but his jogging ambitions may need curtailing, writes Gabriella Coslovich.JUST under two years ago, amid a blaze of publicity, Ben Naparstek was appointed editor of The Monthly magazine, the journal of politics and culture financed and published by affluent Melbourne property developer Morry Schwartz. Naparstek was just 23 at the time, and if his youth wasn't newsworthy enough, he was appointed in the aftermath of a bitter falling out between Schwartz and departing editor Sally Warhaft. Amid this storm, Naparstek sailed in and took the helm in a manner impossibly cool and unflappable. I interviewed him soon after his appointment, and his capacity to stay "on message" was impressive, and a little frustrating."I'm not sure at that stage that I even knew what my message was. I hadn't even started working yet, so I think I was probably less staying on message than not wanting to speak before I knew what the job was," he says, when I remind him of our first meeting.Naparstek (who turned 25 last week) has chosen to lunch at the thoroughly hip Coda, where another precocious talent, chef Adam D'Sylva, serves up astonishing morsels with an East-meets-West theme."I like these fusion kind of places . . . it's a bit more risky, but a bit more exciting," Naparstek says.I'm hoping that his appetite for risk spills over into our discussion, that perhaps, over a couple of drinks, the seemingly imperturbable Mr Naparstek might drop a few secrets, dribble some food, use the wrong cutlery, make a faux pas, anything. But I suspect he doesn't make social slips. (As an editor, he even refrains from uttering the brutal but commonly used term "kill fee", which refers to the compensatory payment made to authors when commissioned stories are not published. Naparstek prefers the more genteel "non-publishing fee".)"I've heard he's a bit of a brat," says a colleague when she learns I'll be lunching with him. I suppose that depends on your definition. He's supremely self-assured, does that count? There's a wilful streak, but if there's a "brat", today he's in hiding. The Naparstek I encounter, and have encountered, is good-humoured, gracious and knows how to hold a conversation - and how to manoeuvre it ever so deftly from avenues he'd rather not go down. Ask about his private life, and he'll steer you towards a dead end. About the only "prurient" crumb Naparstek throws my way is that he's prone to bouts of extremism jogging every day for an hour, for example, to the point of causing plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition. "My problem is I can't do things in moderation . . . the only advice doctors have been able to give me is jog less," he says.Well, yes.The waiter is hovering and decisions must be made, but we're struggling. There's so much to choose from and it all sounds intriguing, especially, to my mind, the "coda roll", a "crisp parcel of bone marrow, ginger, shiitake mushroom and rice paddy herb"."Do you actually like bone marrow?" the waiter asks.Do I like bone marrow? I grew up in a household where sucking the bone marrow from the osso buco was obbligatorio."I might opt out of that," says Naparstek, looking squeamish.He's not vegetarian, but he's not a big meat eater either. "I don't like massively heavy foods. But I can eat a bit today because I've already been to the gym," he says.We settle on 11 small dishes, including several of Coda's signature betel leaf-wrapped delicacies. (Amusingly, the restaurant insists on spelling them "beetle" leaves on the bill.) A 2008 Wonga Estate chardonnay, from the Yarra Valley, is suggested as the perfect liquid accompaniment, and it is.We return to Naparstek's favourite topic the magazine. He has brought along a copy of the February edition (among others) and he's especially proud of the Annie Leibovitz photo of the Queen on the cover. "There's quite a story behind this cover . . . it's the first gatefold cover we've done. [Leibovitz] wouldn't let us crop the image."A "gatefold" is a cover that folds out to reveal the full photo, a bit like the Cleo centrefolds of old. But there is nothing sexy about Leibovitz's photo of the Queen, who looks as staunch as an old colonel, dressed in a monumental black cloak, standing rigidly in a foreboding landscape. The photo points to Peter Conrad's article about the irrelevance and impending end of the British royal family. Perhaps Naparstek was hoping the article might stir the pot. It didn't.The most discussed and despised piece Naparstek has published since becoming editor remains playwright Louis Nowra's scathing (some have suggested puerile) character assassination of everyone's favourite feminist, Germaine Greer, last March. The article prompted a dozen or so subscriptions to be cancelled, but Naparstek does not regret publishing it."Not at all. No. I think that it generated a really interesting and worthwhile public discussion. . . [Greer] could wear it, she has spent her career dishing it out to others. She can wear it and she did wear it."After suffering a slump in advertising revenue during the global financial crisis The Monthly has started breaking even again, and sometimes turns a profit. The magazine's latest circulation figures show an increase in sales of 17.82 per cent on last year, bringing it to 29,476 sales a month (readership is 110,000 a month). As far as Naparstek is concerned, the magazine is more important now than when it was launched five years ago. There is a marked dearth of opportunities in Australia for "serious long-form journalism", and The Monthly is one of the rare avenues for it, he says. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be or wouldn't want to be editing the magazine in 10 years' time. Every month it almost feels like a new job . . . I'm just not even thinking beyond editing The Monthly."One person who might be dismayed to hear this is his grandmother, Rosa Naparstek, a Holocaust survivor, who was born in Poland. "She still asks my mum, 'When is he getting a proper job?', when am I going to be a doctor she doesn't quite understand this," Naparstek laughs.Despite his career flaws, Rosa is clearly fond of her grandson. When she heard that he was renovating his apartment on Collins Street and converting it into a two-bedroom place, she said, "Oh good, one room for you, one room for me."So, over 2 hours, during which Naparstek has imbibed a not-so-extreme 1 glasses of chardonnay, I've managed to uncover that he has an obsessive streak, a tendency to suffer plantar fasciitis, and a grandmother who sounds like a complete hoot. In fact, maybe if I'd lunched with Rosa, I'd have found out a whole lot more about Ben. The bill, pleaseCodaBasement,141 Flinders Lane, cityOpen daily noon-3pm,6-10pm, 9650 3155

© 2011 The Age

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