Q&A: Flip Dunning

Categories: Behind the stalls

The founder of Pâté Moi and its famed mushroom pâté tells us how it all began

How did Pâté Moi come to be?
I was born cooking, as was everyone in my family, so it seemed natural to want to cook. I was working in a corporate environment and I just felt so hemmed in, like I couldn’t breathe. I’d make my mushroom pâté for friends, and a very close friend became properly addicted to it. One day she said: “I definitely think you could sell this. I would willingly help you sell it.” I talked to my father, who said in his brilliant style: “You know what, ditch the job and do what you really love.” And so I downloaded the application to trade at Borough Market.

Why Borough?
I’d been coming here every week since the retail market opened. I’d see the traders and I would think how brilliant it must be to be in control of your own ship, to sell something you love, something you’ve made yourself. A few months after I’d applied, I was at work when “Borough Market” flashed up on my phone. I literally couldn’t breathe. “The good news is you’ve been shortlisted,” they said, “but the bad news is you have to drop samples off to us tomorrow.”

I stayed up all night making the best pâté of my life and brought it to work the next day. When my colleagues asked what I was doing with all these cool bags I said I was meeting my sister for a picnic. In my lunch hour I raced from Soho to Borough with my pâté samples. It felt like I was handing over my babies. My heart was in my mouth, and I kept telling them: “Have the pâté at room temperature, not too cold, and make sure you have it with good bread.” And they said: “Yes, yes, now go away.”

How did you feel when you heard back?
I ploughed on with my job, secretly praying that my artisan life would come. Then one night I got back very late from a wedding, a bit tipsy, and saw an envelope on the mat with “Borough Market” printed on it. I was so nervous that I had to count to 10 before opening it. The letter started with the word “congratulations”. I was overjoyed. I suddenly had to start researching packaging and pots, cool boxes, ice, where to get organic mushrooms in massive bulk—I was a complete novice. It was really sad though because before I could start, I lost my dad. I was so heartbroken and just couldn’t take my place. I contacted Borough Market to explain what had happened, and to their absolute credit they wrote me a lovely letter and said they’d keep my place open for a year. I started trading in September 2006.

What can you recall of your first day’s trading?
I’ll never forget: it was blue sky, which is a nice way to start. I was right out on the periphery of the Green Market but I didn’t care, I was so excited. I remember standing in my pristine apron and thinking, I have no idea if this pâté is going to sell. I had brought 60 pots for the Friday and the same for Saturday. At about 10:30am I put out a board of pâté samples. Somebody came along, tried one and went: “Wow! I’ll buy one of those pots.” That was my very first sale. I was so over the moon that I immediately phoned my mum. I was elated just from that one sale—and I felt like my dad was probably enjoying it too.

Two hours later, absolutely everything had been sold. The market manager came over to me and said: “This one time you are allowed to go home early. I suggest you buy all the mushrooms you can find in London, stay up all night and make way more pâté for tomorrow.” And that’s exactly what I did.

What was it that appealed to people?
As well as the product itself, I think the secret of my success was being extremely self-sufficient—I think people liked that I had made the product myself, stuck labels onto my pots, brought the product to market on the tube all neatly packed, swept the floor, set up the table, shifted the boxes. I know my product and business inside out. I now have an incredible team—loyal, full of enthusiasm, love the Market and, most of all, have become great friends. These guys are part of the whole Pâté Moi experience. It also helps that they’re mushroom pâté addicts.

Isn’t your pâté based on a family recipe?
My brother invented the recipe when he was eight. My family are always cooking and even as children we’d experiment. And that’s what my brother came up with—bless his cotton socks. He’s now a brilliant NHS doctor, specialising in infectious diseases. We always say that he’s fixing people and I’m feeding them. It seems to be working quite nicely.

Pâté Moi seems to have very loyal customers.
Ridiculously loyal. I get emails every week from complete random strangers living in Australia, New Zealand, America and China. I have a man who plans his flights from Hong Kong around the Market’s opening hours to ensure he can get the pâté fresh as possible for flying back.

Basing an entire business on just one product might be considered risky.
People might see that as a fault, like I’m missing a trick, but I say: “Absolutely not.” When you make one product there is nowhere to hide. You have to make it absolutely brilliantly and to put your heart and soul into it. You have to have integrity, and you have to bring the goods tasting the same every week. So you have to be on the case, especially when you’ve got a massive fan base who know it inside out. And my customers love the fact that I just do one thing.

I wouldn’t tamper with my pâté, because I think it speaks for itself. It’s totally natural, for a start, and doesn’t have billions of ingredients. And there are loads of different things you can do with my pâté —stuffing a chicken breast, lining a beef wellington, filling a baked potato, melting over a steak—and that’s the appeal. People like putting their own spin on it. They send me their recipe ideas and I give out mine. My heart and soul goes into it.