Chef Al Brown on a lifetime of unease and finally finding the jacket that fits –

Posted By on October 4, 2021

For the past few years, stories of Al Brown have always mentioned his cap.

Hes been rarely without one, this past decade or so. Hes made a basic, brimmed baseball-style cap part of what we might call, oxymoronically, an informal uniform, typically rounded out by a loose shirt or jacket over a T-shirt, jeans, and signature heavy-rimmed glasses.

Though Brown runs several businesses, he is never in a tie. And though he is indisputably one of New Zealands most successful chefs, he is rarely seen in chefs whites. Thats just not for him.


If the jacket fits: Al Brown in his casual uniform of cap, shirt, and glasses.

As Kiwis, we feel really uncomfortable or awkward in formal situations, he says. Im not saying for everyone, but thats certainly how I feel about it.

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The claim makes sense if you look at the Brown of the past 10 years. When he opened Depot at Aucklands SkyCity, Brown made casual dining cool. With bare tabletops, wine poured from taps and served in tumblers, and save one blip a no reservations policy, Depot was a stark, even aggressive contrast to the stuffy fine dining that had dominated New Zealands restaurant scene.

And yet Browns name is writ large, quite literally, on one of our most iconic fine dining establishments: Logan Brown, the restaurant he opened with Steve Logan in 1996 in the former National Bank building on Wellingtons upper Cuba St, and which still carries his moniker.


Though Brown left Logan Brown more than a decade ago, the iconic fine dining restaurant still carries his name.

I thought when I trained to be a chef, like so many New Zealanders do, and why were so successful in so many industries, is we feel we have to be the best in that industry. So if Im learning to cook Id better do fine dining, Im going to show the world that I can do this.

This motivator to prove he can be the best at whatever he does is one that has been with Brown for all of his adult life. Now 56, he is, by his own admission, a perfectionist and, like many perfectionists, the drive to continually best not only others but himself is a blessing and a curse.

It comes, Brown says, from never feeling fit for purpose, going right back to his adoption as a baby by a farming family in Wairarapa.

They kept adopting until they had a son to take over the farm, and I was a pretty gentle, creative, sensitive little guy, and I wasnt it I always carried with me the idea that I wasnt fit for purpose or damaged goods a little bit, and that led to my perfectionism.

Brown went off to boarding school as a young child. Hard already for a sensitive little guy, it was made even harder when that sensitive little guy was dyslexic.

I was hopeless at school, he says. I was hopeless in a traditional classroom environment. Having been called back to repeat the fifth form, Brown was eventually expelled for rolling cheap joints. He went shepherding in Hawkes Bay after leaving school, not out of any particular compulsion but because, he says, I just did what I was told. Then his parents separated, and this break from the natural order triggered in Brown a realisation that he didnt have to follow a prescribed path.

I didnt like docking and shearing and dagging and drenching, he says. However, I loved eeling. Loading my .22 and going and shooting a rabbit and getting Mum to cook it up. Brown may have struggled with English and maths, but he was good with his hands. He took off to the United States, where he trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont before hopping around cooking gigs in North America and Europe.

Then came Logan Brown, which became Wellingtons premiere upscale restaurant. Im really proud of what we did, Brown says. But it felt like the jacket didnt fit, for me personally. He shrugged off the ill-fitting jacket (chefs whites, presumably) temporarily in 2006 when he and Logan made Hunger for the Wild, a TVNZ series in which the pair left their kitchen to source the seafood, meat and produce they prepared within it.

That led to Browns first book, Go Fish: Recipes and Stories from the New Zealand Coast, and to his next iteration: Al Brown the champion of New Zealand food.


Brown (L) and Steve Logan (R) prepare pua butties for Kura Broughton on Mataikona beach, Wairarapa, on their TV show Hunger for the Wild.

Until about this point, the expectation was that good New Zealand restaurants served foreign cuisine. French, certainly. Italian had a good look-in, too. There was a bit of an appetite developing for Asian flavours. But seasonality wasnt a thing yet, food miles werent being calculated, nobody cared where the chicken on their plate had been farmed, or how, and that you might go to a nice establishment and be served the kind of food you grew up eating at the kitchen table was unimaginable.

But thats the idea that was forming for Brown. By the time the final season of Hunger for the Wild aired, Brown was leaving Logan Brown after 12 years, without another job to go to.

I started thinking, where are my food memories, wheres the connection to food and to good times and to hospitality, he says. I gave that a lot of thought and it just kept coming back to the same places, and that was baches, cribs and camping grounds where Id grown up and that informality. People would drop by with a smoked kahawai and half a fruit cake at three in the afternoon, and wed wash cups and [make] gin and tonics in plastic cups. Big bottles of beer, and laughter and just these really informal gatherings. Thats what I kept going back to.

Michael Bradley

Depot has been named Aucklands best restaurant on multiple occasions.

It was Peter Gordon, who then had two restaurants at SkyCity, who first brought up the idea of Brown joining him there. I made some flippant comment like, if I was going to get into the restaurant game again all Id do is a small little oyster bar or something like that. And the phone rang again and it was SkyCity, about 10 minutes later, saying hey, weve got a great spot for an oyster bar.

It was 2011 and, Brown says, the country was ready for Depot. I think New Zealand was starting to throw the shackles off and realise that actually what wed always been trying to play down, which was our informality, thats actually what everyone loves about us.

Everyone certainly loved Depot. Awarding the restaurant a hat in 2019, Cuisine named Depot the perfect drop-in, saying: If a restaurants merit can be measured by the buzz of the room, then the lively atmosphere at Depot certainly says a thing or two.


Brown, second from left, on the set of MasterChef NZ, 2015.

It was followed by The Federal Delicatessen, known as The Fed, an ode to New Yorks Jewish delis, which Brown opened next door in 2013, and then Best Ugly Bagels, shops selling Montreal-style bagels that now has seven outlets in Auckland and Wellington.

Despite some setbacks The Fed was closed for months after a fire in early 2015 Brown was a great success when viewed from the outside. He wrote more books and made more television shows. He was a judge on MasterChef NZ. He released lines of condiments, developed menus for airlines, cooked for dignitaries. Depot, with its bare tables and wine in tumblers, has been named Aucklands best restaurant multiple times.

Finally, Browns jacket was perfectly tailored. But the idea lingered that he himself wasnt fit for purpose.


In an empty Depot during alert level 4. The restaurant has suffered due to Covid.

Its brought out the perfectionism that I carry with me, and that has been a double-edged sword, he says. Because Ive been very successful in lots of things that I do and its kind of around that Ill show you all that Im OK, and that Im good, and Im never satisfied.

That, he says, has been a coping mechanism, or what he calls my armour that I carried around on me to protect myself. If he was always reaching for the next thing, he never had to stop and examine how he felt in the moment, and why. And, equally psychologically damaging, he was failing to enjoy any of his success.

The hospitality industry is a difficult one, and difficult in particular ways. With very high overheads and very low margins, its always precarious, even for the most seasoned of restaurateurs. It also comes with a particular lifestyle. Restaurant kitchens are small, Brown notes. Theres no seats, everyones got a knife, theres fire, with orders flicking through that you cant stop. Hospitality tends to attract extreme personalities liquorice allsorts, Brown calls them who like to work hard and play hard.

He compares it to being on stage, in that youre judged for your performance, but theres only the loosest of scripts and even that can go out the window pretty quickly. The best nights, the ones you want, are the most relentless, and after chefs have spent eight or 10 hours on their feet theres the clean-up mopping floors, degreasing range hoods.

And then what do you do after that? Brown asks. The options out there in hospitality are few and far between. Theyre called bars, mainly. So for a lot of people thats where they unwind, and alcohol is a drug and then theres the drugs as well.

Despite his early dalliances with pot, Brown says hes never been a barfly or a big user of any substance. But in that pressure cooker environment, his mental health suffered; he developed anxiety, sleep issues, probably some mild OCD. Its played havoc in my personal life, he says. With that comes a huge amount of shame and regret. He separated from his wife Lizzie Lang, mother of his daughters Alice and Connie, after nearly two decades. A subsequent relationship has also ended.

When we speak, over Zoom, Auckland is in its fourth week of the snap lockdown. Brown is alone in a bubble of one and it is, he says, a bit s. But hes philosophical. These days, hes in regular psychotherapy sessions the best hour of his week, he says gets out for daily walks, and is working on overcoming his feelings of inadequacy.

His restaurants have struggled a bit over the past 18 months or so, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and continual roadworks in the CBD. Depot even reversed that no-reservations policy for a time in February.


Brown says psychotherapy sessions are the best hour of his week.

Brown is philosophical about that, too. Put envy and jealousy aside who wouldnt want to have a supermarket right now as long as some places are doing well that means the money is being passed on and keeps moving, and thats what has to happen, he says. So begrudgingly, Im rooting for anyone whos doing well in this Covid situation.

And of course, because this is Al Brown, he has a new project on the go. In Tipping Point, Brown documents his winemaking journey to create six wines with Constellation Brands. They approached him, Brown says. I never thought an opportunity like that would ever come along. Sure as hell Id been prepping myself for 30 years on drinking the stuff so it would be good to know a little bit more on the backend of that.

He went back to early memories, and the first bottle he remembers drinking. There was a dimpled bottle called the Montana Wohnsiedler Mller-Thurgau, he chuckles. It was vin de table at its best, or worst, depending on how you look at it, but I was at Cobb & Co on an early date and I was probably underage, and I ordered it.

With Tipping Point, he wants to do for wine what Depot did for dining: Demystify it, democratise it, and capture a uniquely New Zealand sensibility.

One thing I cant stand about wine is the anxiety around it. You hand someone a wine list, youre saying, Here, have a bunch of anxiety for the next 10 minutes. We all feel that I dont even know how to pronounce this wine, or is that the right glass, is it meant to be cold, is it meant to be room temperature? Theres all this formality around wine that Ive always hated.

Brown is proud of the wine. He might be getting better at enjoying the moment and his own success. But the old imposter syndrome is always there. Are people going to go, oh theres Al Brown, he does burger patties, he makes mustard, oh now hes making wine?

Though you get the feeling if they did, hed just invite them in and hand them a glass. A tumbler, of course.

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Chef Al Brown on a lifetime of unease and finally finding the jacket that fits -

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