Dan Pearson is a master storyteller, with that enviable mix of one-part comedic timing and two-parts unflinching honesty – particularly about himself. It’s refreshing.
He and his wife, Jo, are the founders of Egg & Spoon, which produces a range of gourmet spice mixes, mustards and pickles. Based in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, Dan has travelled a long road from a Northampton council estate where surviving the walk to school each day was the only priority.
But he was introduced to the magic of food through his “nan”, Margaret Persor.
“My dad had a bit of a rough upbringing and he was in those foster homes. My nan was the one house he spent the most time at. She used to be a headmistress, does heaps of charity work and speaks nine different languages. She is a force of nature that woman, she is probably the biggest inspiration in my life,” Dan says.
Margaret was well travelled and she took Dan, a “council estate boy” from one of the roughest areas in Northampton, to stay in the South of France, introducing him to a different food experience.
“I was just from a humble meat and two vege type of family and that really unlocked the doors in my brain to go, ‘Wow, what’s going on here? What else is out there?’
“Their whole philosophy of eating is so different to the stereotypical English: children should be seen and not heard; everything should be overcooked and flavourless. But French kids are drinking shot glasses with red wine, eating unpasteurised cheeses. Food was celebrated.”
Dan knew he wanted to be a chef – not only did it fascinate him, but he wanted an “out” from where he grew up.
“Walking to school felt like running the gauntlet; it’s survival mode. You’ve got to get to school without being punched or having your dinner money stolen – or getting chased by people with machetes,” he says.
“You wake up to find a new burnt-out car in the car park every day, houses torched all the time – it’s not for the faint-hearted. Education went out the window at a very early age for me – I wasn’t a big bloke, so it was just about surviving it.”
But it did perversely put him in good stead to work in kitchens. His dad was a factory worker, and his mum worked in factory kitchens and in a burger van. From age 13, Dan was washing dishes and flipping burgers with his mum.
“It wasn’t an education in terms of food but definitely about being in that commercial kitchen environment. Kitchens are the same whether you are in a factory kitchen in a s* town or in a two Michelin star kitchen in London – the atmosphere is exactly the same, there’s just more egos in the Michelin star one.” Dan trained as a chef but wasn’t ready to venture to London to work yet. He wanted to “party” – life had been too serious for the past 16 years. He worked in a modest hotel in Scarborough catering to clientele who liked their three veges and meat. Within six months he was effectively running the kitchen. “You can’t get that in a Michelin kitchen. You really are peeling vegetables while aspiring to be a lot more than what you are going to be for a few years – it is really long-winded. It is such a harsh environment and you get a lot of personality stamped out of you in some of those kitchens – some are hard and violent. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to have fun,” he says. He worked at a hotel in Jersey, before returning to the one place he didn’t want to be – Northampton. “I was a trainwreck by this point – drinking and partying too hard and piss-poor broke,” he says. Everything was becoming a bit too easy for him and he was lacking something. Something that connected his soul back to food, to that sense of wonder. He sent his CV to the top restaurants in Europe and to a London restaurant. The London one got back to him in four days and within weeks he was cooking in his first Michelin-starred restaurant. “I remember one lad saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look at the chef. He’ll go f**** nuts at you.’” Dan chuckles at the memory.
Dan put his head down and worked – hard. He had one day off over three months – though he was defeated when he worked out his hourly wage worked out to £2.11, he kept going. Because around the corner was a defining moment.
Though we often think life-changing moments have to be big, simple things can show a person what they have been searching for. For Dan, it came when a chef at the restaurant gave him cookbooks by Michelin-starred chefs Michel Bras and Heinz Beck.
“I opened up the first page. I was like, ‘Is this food? This is artwork.’ All of a sudden everything made sense. This is what you can do with food.”
Soon after, he worked at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, London, in one of its restaurants. Back then it was called Foliage and it had a Michelin star and five rosettes.
“It was next-level luxury. As a council estate boy I would never in a million years think I would set foot in a place like this. We were cooking for about 48 people but there were 26 chefs and ‘budget’ was not even a word that was used – it was the best ingredients possible,” he says.
He cooked for people like actors Mark Wahlberg, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes and singers Tom Jones and Mariah Carey. And then former British Prime Minister Tony Blair popped in for a meal. As you do.
As long as Dan got his work done, any extra time could be spent playing and creating and, if it was good enough, it was put on the menu.
But he was working too hard. And that takes a toll.
Dan was on the ferry heading back to Auckland from Waiheke Island with a tear in his eye.
He had followed his girlfriend, now wife, Jo to New Zealand for a holiday. He had developed epilepsy from working too hard and not getting enough sleep. He was at an “all-time low”. It wasn’t uncommon, he says, for this to happen in the high-stress kitchen environments.
“But at the time you feel very isolated and lonely. I had come for a two-week holiday just to see her and piece my life back together and see if there was anything left to salvage.
“On my last two days she took me to Waiheke – let’s face it, that’s pretty f unfair! I’m a council estate boy, used to burnt-out cars, houses and machete-wielding people and she takes me to Waiheke!”
New Zealand enraptured him. A few years later, the couple made the shift in 2009.
However, the stark contrast between New Zealand kitchens and London was almost too much for Dan. He was too used to the high-octane, harsh kitchens, where people ran on stress, and he couldn’t “wrap his head” around New Zealand kitchens where people didn’t “sweat the small stuff”.
“It was like being kicked in the nuts. ‘What have I done?’”
He did contract work and worked on a series of successful pop-up restaurants in Auckland. But he was becoming something he himself had hated – a chef with a temper.
“If I could have my time again, I would do it different. You get thrust into these positions and end up falling into this category of what you hate.” Dan sounds defeated.
Things needed to change. He didn’t want to be a chef and single. Because that is likely what would have happened, he says, because he had seen it over and over again.
“You ask, was it really worth it? The answer is probably no. At the end of the day you are just putting food on a plate. You can pomp it up as much as you want but when it comes down to it, it’s just putting food on a table and that is all it will ever be.”
He has a way of cutting through to the truth of things, does Dan. And with that said, Dan had decided he wanted to prioritise his family. But he still needed to create and, for that, he needed a new recipe.
While working at a Waikato country hotel, he rediscovered his passion for creation
The place was not pretentious but a place full of “real people” – including a “salt of the earth” 74-year-old woman, who was the dishwasher and reminded him of his nan – which made him feel at home.One day, he headed into the pantry in a foul mood, using that as fuel to clean it up. He found some spices and remembered his friend telling him about a spice rub he had made, so Dan decided to give it a go. He made three spice mixes in that cupboard.
“By this time my mind was fizzing and bouncing off the walls.” He had found his new niche.
Wild Fennel Co. gourmet seasonings were created and Dan, Jo and the family made the move to Dunedin. Their spice mixes are now in 250 stores around the country. He has also created ranges of mustards and pickled onions.
Dog Town Mustard is a nod to the affectionate nickname for Port Chalmers (where Wild Fennel has its headquarters), while Gorilla Pickles is a nod to his own family.
“Every year my family tries to outdo each other to make the spiciest pickled onion. As a joke, I thought, well, I’ll start a pickled onion company – which one of you are going to beat that!”
The company has gone from strength to strength, which means Dan can push as much work as possible through to Dunedin’s Cargill Enterprises, the trading arm of the Disabled Citizens Society (Otago). He feels a bit guilty sometimes, does Dan. You imagine he is looking out the window of his Careys Bay home when he says it.
“There are about 50 houses here surrounded by trees. There is birdsong and you are just lapping up the sun. Kids are laughing,” he says.
Early this morning, he was surfing at St Clair – keeping a wary eye on a sea lion that surfaced near him and sent him paddling in the other direction.
It’s that tranquillity he feels guilty about, unable to completely shake that “council estate boy” still within him that says life shouldn’t feel like this. He knows somewhere there is a 13-year-old kid just as he was: “stealing and saving dinner money to buy fags and weed”.
“You work your arse off, just to feel guilty about it,” he says almost to himself. “But it’s nice, you know? To see kids where we live having that good upbringing.” So he’s off now, perhaps to do the school pick-up or take a walk where the sea lions bellow. He’s got things to create and they come with ease in such surroundings.