Sta­dium chef Pear­son pro­vides ‘beau­ti­ful’ meals; now, as he bat­tles can­cer, Dodgers and oth­ers nour­ish him

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL PLASCHKE

It was sup­pos­edly about the food, not the joy­ful man with the gi­ant smile who cre­ated it.

For more than half a cen­tury at Dodger Sta­dium, chef Dave Pear­son has cooked for play­ers, fans and team em­ploy­ees and media in a press-box din­ing room that bears his name. Dave’s Diner is a clut­tered, loud, happy place where, ev­ery day, he would ex­plain his menu in the same fash­ion.

“I’ve got a beau­ti­ful tri-tip.” . . . “I’ve got some beau­ti­ful tur­key.” . . . “This is some beau­ti­ful lasagna.”

Pear­son would talk about the beau­ti­ful in the ap­ple­sauce he would make ev­ery game for Vin Scully, the beau­ti­ful in the sal­ads he would con­coct for Charley Steiner, the beau­ti­ful life of a 75-year-old man still able to cre­ate some­thing that will make peo­ple smile. “I will jok­ingly ask him, ‘Dave, do you have any­thing that is ugly?’ ” Steiner said. “His an­swer has al­ways been no.”

That changed three months ago when Pear­son’s per­sis­tent cough led to a di­ag­no­sis of Stage 4 lung can­cer. The prog­no­sis was fright­en­ing. The biopsy surgery was painful. Per­son missed sev­eral Dodgers home­s­tands and his con­cern over his din­ers was pro­found.

“The best part of my job is cook­ing food that makes peo­ple happy,” he said. “If I can’t get them my food, how am I go­ing to make them happy?”

He was sad­dened. He was weak­ened. Then last month, the chef was given the

most amaz­ing bit of nour­ish­ment in the mail­box of his Van Nuys home. It was an 11-minute video shot in and around Dave’s Diner. It con­tained 50 team em­ploy­ees and media mem­bers send­ing 50 dif­fer­ent mes­sages of hope. It was cam­era­men telling him to fight, ush­ers telling him to hang tough, writ­ers beg­ging him to come back.

It be­gan with ball­park or­gan­ist Nancy Bea He­fley of­fer­ing en­cour­age­ment. It ended with Vin Scully of­fer­ing prayers.

“You have just sud­denly left a hole in the ball­park, and the only way we can fill it up is to get you back,” Scully in­toned.

Dave Pear­son watched the video, and a man who never cries, even over the most aw­ful grease burns, wept at the re­al­iza­tion that maybe he had been dish­ing out more than just “beau­ti­ful” food.

Maybe, af­ter all these years, the one thing ev­ery­one thought was beau­ti­ful was him.

And so, at that mo­ment, his bat­tle against can­cer of­fi­cially be­gan.

“I never knew what kind of im­pact I’ve had on peo­ple, never even had a clue,” Pear­son said. “To hear all these peo­ple telling me to fight? They’re giv­ing me that fight, and I’m gonna fight, I have to fight, be­cause now I know I have a lot to fight for.”

They are usu­ally lo­cated just steps away from the best seats in the most beau­ti­ful ball­parks, yet press-box din­ing rooms are not much dif­fer­ent from fac­tory break rooms or teach­ers’ lounges. They of­fer a brief oa­sis for work­ers in the mid­dle of long days, a place where folks can buy a meal, grab a laugh, catch their breath.

With ev­ery press-box din­ing room be­ing a re­flec­tion of the per­son who runs it, Dave’s Diner is like a big hug. It is a place where the lowli­est of work­ers can joke with Scully, where Tom La­sorda’s voice still booms with glee, where He­fley and her hus­band, Billy, oc­cupy one cor­ner ta­ble, where Fer­nando Valen­zuela can be found chow­ing at another one, where scouts gos­sip and writ­ers com­plain and many folks just mill about un­til the first pitch.

Dave Pear­son cre­ated this space with a gen­tle, easy­go­ing man­ner that matches his sim­ple del­i­ca­cies. He per­son­ally serves the broad­cast­ers in a sep­a­rate side room so Scully can at least eat in peace, yet he treats ev­ery­one as if they were a Hall of Famer, as he spends most of his time stand­ing at the end of the food line shak­ing hands and telling sto­ries.

“No mat­ter what is go­ing on, he al­ways has a gen­tle smile, he gives me a good word, then we fist bump like the play­ers do,” Scully said. “He’s such a joy, such a part of ev­ery­thing.”

Steiner calls him “a glo­ri­ous man” while Rick Mon­day says, sim­ply, “He is fam­ily.”

Un­til now, though, Pear­son has been strictly back­ground, a 10thgrade dropout who worked his way to the top of the Los An­ge­les sports food chain by toil­ing in re­mote kitchens while rarely com­ing out from be­hind his apron.

Af­ter mov­ing here from Brook­lyn as a teenager, he helped sup­port his fam­ily by work­ing as a bus­boy at a Boyle Heights res­tau­rant named Swally’s. He worked his way up through the kitchen, then used con­nec­tions from there to land a part-time job run­ning the Dodgers cafe­te­ria dur­ing the 1963 World Se­ries. He con­tin­ued to moon­light there un­til he was hired to run the en­tire Dodger Sta­dium food op­er­a­tion in 1970.

He has cooked steaks for the Sta­dium Club, soup for the play­ers, served gen­er­a­tions of fans at seem­ingly ev­ery cor­ner of Chavez Ravine. He fi­nally set­tled into strictly run­ning the press din­ing room about 20 years ago, and he has been sur­rounded by many of base­ball’s glam­our mo­ments with­out ever re­ally par­tak­ing in them.

Imag­ine work­ing for a base­ball team for 52 years and never watch­ing a game from the stands. That’s him. Be­cause he ar­rives ev­ery day at 7 a.m. to pre­pare lunch for sta­dium em­ploy­ees, Pear­son is ex­hausted by the time he’s fin­ished with the pregame din­ner, and leaves the sta­dium ev­ery day by 9 p.m. He was even walk­ing out the door the night Kirk Gib­son hit his homer in the 1988 World Se­ries, and stopped only long enough to watch the ball clear the fence.

“Cook­ing for the peo­ple, that’s what makes me happy,” he said. “Af­ter that it’s time to go home.”

Imag­ine be­ing part of four world cham­pi­onships yet, be­cause he of­fi­cially works for the sta­dium con­ces­sion­aire, hav­ing no ring or pen­dant to show for it. That’s also him, as his cham­pi­onship mem­o­ra­bilia con­sists of some 1988 World Se­ries wine glasses.

“I don’t need mem­o­ra­bilia to know I’ve been part of it,” he said. “When peo­ple smile and thank me for my food, that’s how I know.”

He has never been on a road trip. He has never been to spring train­ing. All these years as a chef for Hol­ly­wood’s base­ball or­ga­ni­za­tion, and he has never even pub­lished a cook­book, although there is a rea­son.

“We were all set to print one, and then we re­al­ized, Dave never wrote down any of his recipes,” said his wife, Sherry, with amaze­ment. “It’s all in his head.”

His re­wards have come in cook­ing for the likes of Frank Si­na­tra, Ron­ald Rea­gan and the Three Tenors.

Then there was the time La­sorda told an in­ter­viewer that if he could take any­body into a fox­hole with him, it would be “Dave the chef at Dodger Sta­dium.”

The ul­ti­mate flat­tery oc­curred when the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs, who are run by for­mer Dodgers ex­ec­u­tive Derrick Hall, tried to hire him away. But Pear­son is so loyal to the Dodgers that he turned down the of­fer with­out even telling them.

“It re­ally has be­come like my fam­ily,” he said. “I can’t leave them now.”

This loy­alty can per­haps best be found in the back of a Dodger Sta­dium re­frig­er­a­tor, in a jar of home­made ap­ple­sauce. Pear­son makes it and serves it nightly to Scully, who loves ap­ple­sauce so much he eats it with vir­tu­ally ev­ery meal.

“Ev­ery day, you look for­ward to see­ing Dave,” Scully said. “When all of a sud­den he’s not there, it’s like miss­ing a front tooth.”

Pear­son has been out for nearly a month af­ter his can­cer treat­ment — a twice-daily chemo­ther­apy pill — was com­pounded by back prob­lems. But he is hop­ing to be back in the kitchen for the up­com­ing home­s­tand, and he says he will be stand­ing strong.

He has been told by Levy Restau­rants, the Dodger Sta­dium food con­ces­sion­aire, that his job is safe. He has been told by the Dodgers, who set him up with spe­cial­ists from City of Hope, that he is in­deed fam­ily. Nei­ther has ever men­tioned a word about his food.

“It feels like that whole sta­dium is be­hind me,” Pear­son said. “The way I feel now, I’ve got 10 or 15 more good years in me.”

The Dodgers will take it one game at a time, be­gin­ning Fri­day against the New York Mets, a night when Pear­son hopes to cook up some of that you-know-what tri­tip.

“We heard he might be com­ing back,” said Scully. “Now, that would be beau­ti­ful.”

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

THERE’S JOY IN COOK­ING for Dave Pear­son, 75, a fix­ture at Dodger Sta­dium since 1960s who has pre­pared meals for play­ers, fans, team em­ploy­ees, Vin Scully and oth­ers in media.

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