Damian doesn't like it when you say that sort of thing about him. Damian still seems somewhat taken aback at the recognition he's received, from the food community, from Melbourne and 2 years ago from the Australian government in the form of an Order of Australia for services to the fruit and vegetable industry. As Damian puts it, "It was the first time it had been given to a 'Joe Bloggs' like me. I'm not anyone special, I'm just me. I enjoy what I do and if I didn't, I certainly wouldn't be here."
Growing up in Queensland, he used to eat Kraft cheese "I think it came in a blue packet" between white bread. When he had celery for the first time in Queensland, no one had heard of it. Damian moved to New Zealand later on and found his way in a hotel chain "I just enjoyed the industry and was fortunate to get involved here in the mid-60s and mid-70s. I was lucky enough to be involved as the food industry took off."
Damain then worked all around the world on offshore oil rigs as a chief steward in catering. "I was employing people from everywhere. And it was another eye opener to see produce that I'd never seen before, that I couldn't even spell. Then I returned to Australia and worked in the desert for a while, doing catering for a mate's company. That folded and this opportunity at the Prahran Market came about and I thought we'll give it a go. It's been just great for me. I just wanted to enjoy what I had and have always had as my motto "I am here to make friends, not money. And now I''ve got a lot of very good friends. I've been very fortunate to work in an industry that's brought me up to respect the people and the product."
Damian says that he was helped by some wonderful people along the way. "In mid-1986 Jill Dupleix came and asked me what I wanted to do with my stall and she wrote a 2 page spread about it in The Age and Terry Durack brought people round and opened doors for me. They were both great shoppers at the market."
He was then introduced to mushroom brokers and importers. "Terence said he could get me anything I wanted so I asked for 20 cases. No one was doing those kind of quantities of chanterelles, mousserons and cepes as a retailer. I was lucky to have the support of customers in the market who were willing to have a go, people who had been overseas and eaten the produce and away it went."
He started sourcing mushrooms from all around the world, including South East Asia and began expanding into the exotic side of mushrooms. Damian was offered mushrooms from Sydney for the first time and then Ron, a local man in Melbourne approached him. "Ron was growing shitakes and asked if I wanted to sell a local one and that industry boomed. It was a great success."
Elizabeth Chong was also a great supporter of the Market and they did a few gigs together on different programs for culinary and medicinal use of mushrooms with the Asian community. Then people began enquiring about truffles in 1988. "I've always been game to try new products. Thank god it's been rewarding ever since."
Damian's worked solidly for years. "Never had a break from the market until four years ago, we started to pinch a day here and there and then I had a week off after Christmas 3 years ago and that's the first time I've ever had a holiday. 23 years we worked straight, on the Market days. I got used to that, didn't really matter. Now it's good to look at the calendar and plan a break."
And any recommendations?
"I don't buy things I don't eat. Very proud of that.What I eat's what's in my shop."
Come and visit Damian at Stall 116 Damian Pike at the Prahran Market