Al Brown grew up in rural Wairarapa, during a “culinary wasteland” of an era characterised by food inherited from Britain. His mum would cook the veges for as long as she roasted the meat. But the more he recalls this time, the more he takes pride in our foodie history.
“We ate a lot of lamb, but we had a vege garden and an orchard. We were great bakers; most mums used to bake once or twice a week. We were great at pickling and preserving and that’s still part of my food today.”
Brown did a culinary arts degree in the US and cooked at eateries there and in Europe before opening fine dining establishment Logan Brown in Wellington in 1996. His Auckland restaurant Depot, established last year, is cathartic by design. It resembles a Kiwi bach; there’s mismatched cutlery in mackerel tins, rustic furniture and water in metal beakers.
“We’re a lot more comfortable in our skin now,” Brown says of Kiwi food culture. “Even 15 years ago, when I was doing fine dining in Wellington, we still wanted to be like the rest of the world. Now we’re understanding we’re very good at casual and we’re very generous with our hospitality. In France if you order scallops, there might be four of them and there’ll be some foam and some micro herbs looking like pubic hair. You want to take a photo of it. But in New Zealand, you’ll get a plate of scallops that’s been cooked in butter, with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. I know which one I’d like to have.”
On the TV show Hunger for the Wild, he and Logan Brown partner Steve Logan are a pair of Kiwi jokers on a national food journey. But don’t mistake the casual, accessible style for a lack of business ambition.
“I’m very driven and competitive. I love to do things well and I have a huge fear of failure. The more I do things and the more there’s a challenge, the more risk I want to take. Every time I achieve something I get a bit more confident.”
Brown shuns the celebrity tag and would be happy without the TV shows, the books and the public speaking, but says they’re inextricable ingredients in his success. Another vital part of longevity in the hospitality game is a smart team.
He has plans to take his culinary empire global — starting with Australia.
“We strategise about the brand quite a bit. When the phone keeps ringing, you realise you can’t do everything. The opportunity to travel and talk about my country and cook and pour wine and tell stories would be an absolute honour. I hope my personality can make that happen. Food is international and why wouldn’t people say, ‘Al Brown has a sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously and he can cook’. I want to see how far I can go.”
Do you feel better off than at this time last year?