The day Des Britten became Sir Des, his son Dominic told him he was very proud of him.
Sir Des teared up, looked at his son and said: “I still feel like that little boy from Waipawa.”
And that’s what he was, said Dominic Britten.”He never asked for success, he never sought it out, it always came to him and he always didn’t feel like he deserved it.”
Sir Des Britten, a former TV chef and restaurateur turned Wellington City Missioner, has died. He had been battling cancer.
Father Des Britten, who retired in 2011 after 17 years at the helm of Wellington City Mission, won the Wellingtonian of the Year award the same year. He was knighted in 2012.
His death was confirmed on Thursday morning by Anglican bishop Justin Duckworth as well as his son Dominic.
“Des’s legacy in the [hospitality] industry in Wellington is probably largely unwritten,” top chef Martin Bosley said on Thursday morning.
“A lot of people owe what is going on in Wellington to Des Britten.”
Wellington Mayor Andy Foster described Sir Des as a “giant in the Wellington community”.
“Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time.
“Sir Des was well known as a local restaurateur, priest and TV chef but his legacy in Wellington will be best remembered through his many years of service as City Missioner.
“The compassion he showed for others and commitment to helping them were an inspiration to others.
“Rest in peace Sir Desmond.”
Sir Des took over the mission in 1994, increased the staff from seven to about 30, and shouldered the task of feeding hundreds of people a week.
In the 1970s he hosted two television shows, Thyme for Cookery and Bon Appetit, and wrote several cookbooks. He was also the owner of top Wellington restaurant The Coachman.
Before that, he was a disc jockey who entertained up to 3000 kids who would turn up to his Coca-Cola Hi-Fi Club dances in the Town Hall.
Son Dominic Britten said his father’s life was extraordinary – divided into three completely separate but successful careers.
“His time as an entertainer … his time as a chef, and his time as a missioner are all pretty much tied into the one simple thing: he wanted to make sure people are happy.”
His father came from a farming family in Hawke’s Bay, but the young Sir Des “hated farming”.
Sir Des’ own father was initially disappointed when he showed no interest in continuing the family work – plus he was worried when his son turned immediately to the cooking section on the back page of the weekly farming paper whenever it arrived.
“He [Sir Des’ father] was pleasantly surprised when he was a success on radio, and of course he was very proud of him when he was on TV, so it was alright after that.”
Dominic Britten said he essentially grew up in The Coachman on Courtenay Place, and worked there as a kid as well.
As a child, watching his father on television was “fun” and Dominic even appeared on a couple of episodes himself.
“I sat there and they made me pretend to eat all the chocolate … it all seemed pretty normal to me, and it’s not till you get older that you realise how special the guy was.”
Restauranteur and chef Tony Astle, who established Antoine’s Restaurant in Auckland, said Sir Des was literally his godfather.
When Astle was christened as an adult in the Anglican church, Sir Des – his former employer at The Coachman – performed the service.
“He was very spiritual, there was no doubt about that, and he did care about people.”
Back when Astle started at The Coachman, it was the beginning of modern cuisine in New Zealand – and the start of a New Zealand culinary identity.
“In the 50s and 60s New Zealand food was just absolutely shocking…it [The Coachman] was all based on french food, just modernised to fit New Zealand, and it worked very well.”
Speaking to The Dominion Post in 2011, Sir Des revealed his association with the mission began around the same time The Coachman opened, although his work was not well known then.
Simon Woolf, a Wellington City councillor and friend, described him as a “great man”.
The Wellington City Mission was mourning the loss of its former City Missioner of 17 years.
Murray Edridge, the current Wellington City Missioner, described Sir Des as an “iconic Wellington trailblazer”.
His love for Wellington started when he used to run the Coachman restaurant and bring in warm meals on the weekend to feed those in need, Edridge said.
“He was immensely passionate about helping those in need, and has laid down a legacy that he can be proud of. May he rest in peace knowing that his legacy will be remembered and continued.”