Our Head Chef Dan Pearce comes out from behind the hot plate to talk about the good and bad of being a chef, his love of hummus and the perfect panna cotta.
Tell us about your cooking…
My style of cooking is modern brasserie, creating what I call modern English food which is honest and flavoursome. At Aalto we describe our food as classic with a modern twist so our diners will find some dishes which they are familiar with but perhaps presented in a slightly unusual way or developed a little. We like to surprise and delight people but to always produce say a chicken liver parfait which is a dish you may know well but ours will be the best you have ever had. I don’t like to over-garnish or over-style, but work with exceptional ingredients and let those speak for themselves.
For me, it doesn’t matter if you are cooking in a little café, a burger place, fine dining restaurant or a brasserie, it’s critical to choose the best ingredients, cook them well and to serve great food which represents value for money. I’m excited about turning out dishes which are simply executed but are something special on the plate.
It may sound odd but I also get excited by the fear of it: what you are doing has to be right and you have to please so many people. Your work is judged by all those who work in your own business and by the industry at large. Everyone is a critic these days, so everything you do can be exposed online, everyone has an opinion and, with a pen and paper, laptop or iphone, they can tell the world what they think. It’s quite scary to think that their judgement may end on TripAdvisor. This gives a fear and excitement all rolled into one. It makes for a bundle of emotions but that’s good as I think it’s important to be emotional about the food your produce.
What’s your perfect meal?
I love to eat noodles or try an independent Asian place where you can enjoy something quick and easy, cheap and cheerful and you can spend more time talking and having fun with the family. It’s a great way of having some good conversation and encouraging people, especially youngsters, to try new dishes and introducing them to new flavours.
I often choose brasserie style. Although it’s what I do myself day in, day out, it’s what I love. I like the informality and great food. I don’t need someone to keep adjusting the napkin on my lap! I love pork so I would probably choose that for a starter then a steak for my main course. Dessert would be a brulee or panna cotta as this is a great way to really judge a kitchen. I enjoy discovering new wine so would probably ask for a glass recommended as a great match for each dish, I’m really keen to sample new things so this is a great way of doing that.
How did you become a chef?
I’m born and bred in Brum and worked at a butchers in Stirchley while I was at school. I was there as a teenager for two years after school and all day on Saturdays. This meant I was used to working long hours from an early age and it didn’t bother me that I was at work when my friends were off training or playing rugby. The hours there prepared me for life in the kitchen. Things really took off for me when I went on a tour of the College of Food (now UCB). I’d gone along thinking I was going to train as a butcher but I saw people cooking and tried some dishes which I’d never had before. It really opened my eyes and palate to what was possible. My family weren’t really foodies and cooking at home was very straightforward. They really supported me though and always drove me around to wherever I needed to be. Going to college showed me things could be different and I wanted to be a part of that. After college I spent five years working with a great chef in Worcester and I owe him a lot. He was very strict and he really fired my imagination. After that I worked at a five star hotel for nearly two years and then took on various other roles which taught me good kitchen skills, fine dining and banqueting. But it was the hotels which I loved and I joined Hotel La Tour pre-opening in March 2012. This spring I was promoted to Head Chef.
What do you eat at home?
Everything! Just at the moment I’ve got a bit of a thing for hummus and we make great flat bread to go with it. I really enjoy just gathering up a great basket of fresh, colourful veg and chopping it up really small into a big bowl of salad. Lots of crunch, just a little lettuce, and it’s perfect with grilled fish or chicken. Nicely seasoned, it stands up to lots of different types of dressing and my favourite is a classic French.
I like to start with one main ingredient, say a nice piece or fish and find lovely fresh spinach and serve it with a butter sauce or some gutsy gorgonzola and fresh salami with tagliatelle, reducing some shallots and garlic, and serve it in a white wine sauce with some garlic bread.
If I’m cooking for other people at home, I’ll always ask them that kind of things they like, bear that in mind when I’m shopping but create something spur of the moment.
Who’s the best chef in Brum?
In my opinion the best chef in Birmingham is Glynn Purnell. I had eaten at his restaurant a couple of times and was last there a few weeks ago to celebrate my promotion to Head Chef. It was a great evening. Glynn’s food just keeps getting better and better. It was fantastic and we had a great night.
Is the customer always right?
Er, I’ll have to be careful what I say here but I think the customer is not necessarily always right although it seems that TripAdvisor is!
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
Undoubtedly the best thing about being a chef is forming a bond, almost like a family, with your team. We probably spend more time together than we do with our families. One of the things that I love is the kinsmanship, you start with a group of strangers and very often end up as friends for life. Building and motivating the team is a huge part of the role of a head chef. You want them to enjoy it as much as you do and it becomes a pleasure to work together.
What’s the worst thing about being a chef?
To be really honest, there’s not a lot that I don’t like. Sometimes you find yourself cleaning the kitchen at 1am and I don’t event mind that! I’m here with a great bunch of people and we all love what we do. If there was one thing I could change though it would be spending more time with my kids.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’d be doing something in the countryside in a beautiful rural area or maybe living by the sea and fishing on a day boat.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
Try the scallops and pork belly – it’s a really gutsy dish with beautiful ingredients, great flavours and it’s Aalto Restaurant’s modern take on the classic surf and turf. It’s not for the faint-hearted, great for someone like me who really likes their food. I would also recommend the steak: they are second to none, beautiful meat from the Lake District which is hung for more than 30 days. You won’t be disappointed. For dessert lovers, I would say try the silky smooth panna cotta served with sharp berries, a perfect and refreshing end to a meal.