Michele Hewitson interview: Al Brown

By Michele Hewitson

Wellington's famous hunter-gatherer celebrity chef sets up an unusual eatery in Auckland's Sky City.

Al Brown doesn't like TV food shows and believes MasterChef is a game show. Photo / Richard Robinson
Al Brown doesn't like TV food shows and believes MasterChef is a game show. Photo / Richard Robinson

Al Brown, chef, hunter and gatherer and the nearest thing Wellington has to a celebrity chef, inhaled half a dozen oysters without blinking and shortly afterwards said: "I still eat the last pie at the gas station at four in the morning."

He loves oysters; pies; killing things, but only for eating, obviously; rugby and a food critic called A.A. Gill.

What a funny bunch chefs are. At least celebrity chefs are, and we're only interested in that breed, aren't we? But who would want to be a celebrity chef - you have to either be Gordon and shouty, or Jamie and do-gooding.

The glorious days of Marco Pierre White, the rock star chef, and Anthony Bourdain's cocaine-in-kitchens days are long gone, if we ever had them here. Now we have chefs like Al Brown who eat gas station pies (although chefs have always done that) and serve wine out of tumblers (and we'll get to that) and love the great outdoors and whose worst crime is eating, for heaven's sake.

I did say he was the nearest thing Wellington has to a celebrity chef. He is still a silent partner in that parlour of posh dining, Logan Brown, in Wellington, which is weird because he really doesn't like fine dining. Now he has Depot at Sky City in Auckland which is probably more made in his image: it's laid back and resolutely unsnooty.

He always said he'd never open a restaurant in Auckland and he has, sort of, stuck to that, because instead he's opened an oyster bar and a joint that sells wine from the tap, in tumblers (you can of course have Bollinger in a glass, if you insist), and tiny little fish burgers in buns of "white trash" bread.

He is certainly a fine fellow to have lunch with. I had invited myself to lunch at Depot. At least I had nominated midday as an interview time, and Depot as the place, because I wanted to see whether he'd feed me.

You might think this would be a given: you are going to interview a chef, a celebrity chef, in his restaurant, it is for what he and his PR people hope will be good PR. Of course he's going to advertise his wares. Of course a chef is going to feed you. Mostly they don't. I think they forget that normal people eat: they eat gas station pies at 4am.

But he put on a lovely feast and remembered to ask the photographer what he'd like to eat, and would he like a glass of wine? (You'd be amazed at how many people don't.) So he has good manners.

I don't and so I was really rude about his plonk from the tap and said I wasn't drinking that muck, thank you very much. He said it was very good plonk and the sav blanc is the one the French Laundry has on its wine list, thank you very much. It was still low rent, I said. He said it was most certainly not low rent, it was fantastic and he was selling gallons and gallons of the stuff. He wasn't selling it to me. He took this pretty well. He is pretty laid back and so resolutely unsnooty as to be annoying.

He is an odd mix of supreme confidence, and new eatery jitters. (Depot has been open three weeks.) He thought Aucklanders might not like him, or his food. He said, wide-eyed, of Auckland: "It's a big city".

He's a big personality, or is supposed to be. You can't now be a very good chef, cooking very good food - you have to be a big personality, which is another name for a celebrity chef, or for a chef who wants his own TV show.

He really hates being called a celebrity chef but it's his own fault because on paper that's exactly what he looks like. He has a new book, Stoked; a new TV show, Get Fresh, with Al Brown; and the new eating place, Depot.

He looked like a man who had just eaten a rotten oyster when I asked if he was a celebrity chef. He says he doesn't know what that is, which I suspect is nonsense, and that "I just do what I do".

He likes going around the country, because he loves it, and eating local food and telling people about it, because he loves it. He's in many ways a fairly basic bloke, although I'm certain the "don't forget I'm thick" schtick - he did have to do School C twice and he never got School C maths - is just that.

He grew up "in the boonies", on a farm in the Wairarapa and as the only boy (he has two sisters) it was so taken for granted that he would take over the farm that he was never given career advice at school. He didn't realise until he left school to become a shepherd, before eventually taking over the farm, that he didn't like sheep. When his parents divorced he had a revelation: if they didn't have to go on being married because they didn't want to be, he didn't have to be a farmer.

He is adopted and found his parents when he turned 30 and likes them and all of his half-siblings very much, so no dramas there. He did a culinary degree in the States and cooked there and in Europe before setting up Logan Brown and so now he's sort of, reluctantly, possibly, Wellington's most famous chef.

What he really likes is looking at rocks and rivers and "the anticipation" of finding food in wild places. He doesn't like food television. He thinks people have just about had enough of the stuff. He is not very good at PR. He was on an early MasterChef show; he says it is "a game show", which it is but hardly any chef will say so.

He's not even really a chef any more (he says he is) because what he does is clear tables and stand at the pass at Depot and check the food going out and get wildly excited when the PM drops in for breakfast. He tweeted this which was either a bit gauche, or a bit tossy.

He got a bit huffy about that and says he was just genuinely over the moon that the PM had come to his place for breakfast. "I thought it was lovely." What did he have to eat? He said he could hardly tell me now, could he? That would make him look like a tosser. (He had a bacon buttie.)

I didn't think he'd mind because he is supposed to be a hunting, fishing, killing things sort of guy - and you'd imagine the language when you're out in the bush shooting Bambi is reasonably robust. His cookbook is very manly and involves dead beasts and cooking them over fire, preferably outdoors.

There is a picture of a coq au vin, with a bit of white trash sliced loaf. I thought that was taking things a bit far. "Okay, don't buy the book." He's not completely laid back then. He says he thinks he's pretty thick-skinned, but that perhaps he isn't after all. He's used to being agreed with, all chefs are, even if he's a chef who won't let his staff call him chef. "My name's Al."

Which is all very egalitarian, but I still didn't quite believe that he would have a slice of white bread with his coq au vin. He swears he would. He said: "I'm not a food snob." He doesn't understand foam. It is not something he recognises as food. He doesn't do "dots on plates". He has corned beef with mustard sauce and cabbage for his tea on Sunday nights. He drinks wine out of tumblers at home.

So, all right, he probably would have white bread with his coq au vin and he'd probably use the rest of the loaf to wipe up the blood of whatever beast he's just killed.

Boy, he really likes killing things. He does, he says, but he doesn't kill things in a gloating way. He chose to demonstrate this by showing me some of the pictures in his book.

Oh, look, there's poor little dead Bambi. And on the next page is a picture of a hand, his presumably, holding a hunting knife. The knife and the hand are covered in blood. I said that far from not being a gloating picture, it could be a recruitment poster for the SAS.

It is, he agrees, a very manly cook book. And what does that mean? "That it hasn't got Annabel Langbein on the cover."

He doesn't seem, despite the love of killing things, and for going bush, to be particularly Bear Grylls-ish. I was going to say that one of the stranger things about him is his love of the acerbic, foppish English critic, A.A. Gill who he interviewed (to some literary sniffiness) at the writer's festival this year. But A.A. Gill is the man who shot a baboon ...

He took Gill out fishing and they got on like two very odd houses on fire. But what a strange couple they must have made. "I was the perfect foil for him. I'm a big, fat, jolly chef; he's an incredibly bright, wonderful wordsmith."

I think I can see why he hates the idea of being a celebrity chef. He would have to be interesting, somehow. He would much rather be fly-fishing than talking to me and trying to be interesting, I'm sure.

Still we had a very good chat about the best way to cook cabbage, (a scant half a tablespoon of water, a lot of butter); and about how oysters don't really count as part of the meal: they're just things we throw back, by the dozens, while looking at the menu.

But perhaps he felt he had to tell me something more interesting. (Although almost nothing is more interesting to me than talking about oysters, while eating them.) I can't think of any other reason why he'd decide to tell me he'd been kicked out his fancy boarding school, Rathkeale, in the Wairarapa, in his last year, for selling "loose joints".

I don't actually know what loose joints are, or whether they're worse than non-loose joints, say. Anyway, too late to ask him now. I was so taken aback by the telling, and the wondering why he would, that what he was telling seemed immaterial.

Anyway, I promised to put this scandalous news in the introduction - "oh, please don't!", he pleaded. And as he was so gracious a host, I haven't. Actually, I almost forgot all about it because he managed to make his doper past sound less interesting than if he'd eaten three pies from the tuck shop for morning tea, say.

That is just the sort of thing he would do. He is just a decent bloke who was supposed to be a farmer, who likes fly fishing, hunting, the rugby and eating. This may not make him as interesting as a celebrity chef, who knows?

All I know is he's a very comforting person to eat oysters and little fish burgers in white trash rolls with.

I held out on the plonk from the tap, but he won on the tumbler, and so we had, I think, an amicable lunch and that is always a nice thing to have.

- NZ Herald

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