Full name: Philip Evans
Role: Co-founder, The Pelagonia Range
DOB: April 1981
Fun Fact: “Once had my own cooking show on Macedonian TV.”
So, let’s start at the beginning. Prior to moving to Macedonia in 2009, you were already a professional chef and bona fide food lover – you’d also had some experience running smaller businesses. But what were your formative years like? Did you always know a career in food was on the cards for you,? Did you grow up in a food-obsessed family? When/how did you actually start Pelagonia?
I didn’t move to Macedonia to start a business or work with food, but I had a love for cooking and exploring cultures. Previously I had worked in hotels and private catering before then running my own small web design and social media company working with clients around the world. I learned a few basic principles that have helped me. Soon after moving here to Macedonia I had an opportunity to film some cooking programmes showcasing foreign cuisine before we started Pelagonia in 2011.
Many of us are not actually that familiar with the culture and foods of Macedonia, could you perhaps tell us about what they’re like, and what they eat? How’s it been for you, as an Englishman? Most of our readers don’t know about Aivar, but they probably should – you reckon it could grow to the same level of familiarity as pesto and hummus have, right?
Aivar (or Ajvar) is the reason we launched Pelagonia. It’s an iconic recipe well known and appreciated here in the region by locals and visitors alike, made from naturally sweet roasted red peppers and aubergines. Traditionally Aivar is eaten here in winter for breakfast with bread and white creamy cheese, but there are many ways to enjoy the product (http://www.pelagonia.co.uk/ 52ways/4593730344).
Aivar is to the Balkans what hummus is to the Middle East. Macedonia is a very family friendly culture and eating and hosting people goes hand in hand. ‘No eating, no meeting’ is one of our slogans.
As a chef, what in, your professional opinion, are the most underrated and overrated ingredients?
I’ve been vegetarian for 3.5 years and recently started to transition more and more to a vegan diet. I do think meat is overrated for various reasons and there’s so much creativity and food to explore when you decide to pursue plant based protein.
You’re also a pretty serious trail runner, as far as I know. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
I’m no ultra runner but I love to get out on the mountains in Macedonia as much as possible. We’re heading to Corfu this month for a 20km race and getting out on the hills and trails gives me a disconnect from reality that I need with the business, a young family etc. If you’re a road runner, I’d recommend giving trail/fell running a go. It becomes addictive after a while. Not sure I could live somewhere flat like Holland!
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the Macedonian food?
I don’t have a standard day in the office, but my main focuses are working on sales, maintaining regular contact with clients and working on growth ideas, new products etc.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
I still look back on our launch with great fondness. We rocked up to a trade show in 2011 with a concept, a small table, a few jars and a banner. Fortunately we had 3 customers (including Waitrose) who were willing to launch our products and we’ve never looked back. 2018 will be our seventh straight year of growth.
Where do you get your ideas?
Originality and creativity are inseparable, we try not to pay too much attention to other brands and what they do, instead looking for ideas that come from within. Much of the energy in the Pelagonia story comes from Macedonia and the incredible food heritage here. That’s our USP and exploring the country and its cuisine is the best way for us to get inspiration.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
I recognise that I’ve been born into a family, a place and time in history where many opportunities were available to me. I hope to use those opportunities to the maximum and create opportunities for others. My motto would be: ‘From those to whom much is given, much is expected.’
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Brexit has been a big challenge to our business with the devaluation of £GBP. We’ve had to work harder to increase sales instead of increasing prices whilst pursuing sales in other currencies. I’ve learned that there are opportunities in even the biggest challenges if you look hard enough.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
Paul Hargreaves at Cotswold Fayre in the UK has taught us a lot about partnership in business. I’m also a big fan of restaurateur Danny Meyer and his approach to hospitality in business.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I know that both my partner and myself enjoy having the autonomy to run our own company. I also love being able to introduce the world to a new cuisine and food culture. A fantastic privilege.
What advice would you give to aspiring food and drinks entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Invest time in researching your ideas and products. Why would someone buy your product instead of the hundreds already available?
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
No idea. I never expected to be running a business in Macedonia. In a different life I’d like a more rural lifestyle but there’s time for that.
If you could get anyone to try your products (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the foods would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
We’ve been fortunate to have people like Yotam Ottolenghi and Lindsey Bareham endorse our products, but I’d love to have René Redzepi on board. He has roots in Macedonia growing up each summer here with his family.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the business? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
We want to see Pelagonia Aivar and our other traditional products widely understood and available across all our markets. With close to 1000 stockists in the UK we’re getting there.
Where next for you and Pelagonia?
We’re focused on growing the product range, marrying Macedonian food traditions with trends in the markets where we’re present.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
You have acquired a pet dragon and are morally obliged to look after it. It is 25 ft tall at the hips, spits fire, eats half a ton of raw meat a day, and likes long walks. What would you call it and what would you do to keep it entertained and housed?
Sounds like an expensive pet. Long walks sound good, I wonder how our dog would react to a dragon as a partner. Dragan (with an a) is a name here in Macedonia so that’s an easy one. It would fit right in!
If Pelagonia was forced to change from a purveyor of delicious Macedonian food into a martial arts dojo, what style would you guys teach and what music would you play in your gym to get people fired up?
You’ve got me there. Some intense music for a good cardio workout sounds good, but I’m no fan of exercising inside. Is there a mobile martial arts style that works better outside?
If the army donated a functioning army tank to your business (and paid its fuel/ammo expenses) what are the first 3 things you’d do with it?
Turn it into a mobile vehicle to host tastings outside retailers and at food festivals.