When Al Brown signed up to study te reo he didn't expect the biggest things he learned to be about himself. Kim Knight shares a Matariki feast with the chef, his tutor and their whānau.
The white man with glasses and a cap takes a deep breath: "Kia ora!" he says, as confidently as he can.
Later, in the corporate training room, he introduces himself - Al from the Depot. Okay, thinks the tutor Hepa Lolesi. He must be a truck driver. Or a bus driver.
Another four weeks pass before the te reo class sits down to a shared kai and a fellow student drops the bombshell. Al Brown is famous. A chef, television personality and the guy behind Depot Eatery, Fed Deli and Best Ugly Bagels.
"I humbly apologised," says Lolesi. But Brown (who brought a plate of tuatua fritters to that lunch) shakes his head. He was very happy flying under the radar.
Two years since the pair met, and the Herald on Sunday is along for the reunion. Oysters, kahawai and mutual admiration. A few days later, we'll be there again when their whānau come together for kina doughnuts, pork hock with stuffing, smoky potatoes and watercress - all vying for a spot on a new, work-in-progress Matariki menu, being devised by Brown.
"I had actually tried to learn te reo about 12 or 15 years prior," he says. "I think I have a strong conscience and so if I say I want to learn something, I kind of beat myself up if I'm just talking the talk and not walking the walk . . ."
But: "There was a sense of vulnerability. I was s****ing myself walking into that room."
To be clear, Brown is still a beginner. In 2020, he completed Te Ara Reo Māori He Pī ka Pao levels 1 and 2 with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, before shifting his focus to whakairo (carving), attending regular classes in Māngere. It's a highly personal journey. He doesn't share his work on social media and only agreed to this interview because he hoped it might encourage other newcomers.
"I have so far to go, but I'm making peace with that. I'd love to do full immersion . . . for now, I think it's still going to be piecemeal, but I'm happy if I'm continuing to learn and to be part of it."
The Wairarapa farm boy who became a chef co-opened Wellington's Logan Brown restaurant before moving north to establish Depot. He is a longtime champion of the New Zealand food story - hunting, fishing, foraging - but, more recently, has begun to speak about being adopted, having dyslexia, a marriage break-up and mental health challenges. Brown is not just learning a language - he is figuring out who he is and where he belongs.
"I've been outing my issues," he says. "And I find the connections in Te Ao Māori - the connection to nature and their connections to each other and how they look after each other, that whole family and whānau thing - that's what I've been drawn to."
Last Saturday, Brown set a restaurant table for 12. He paced. He frowned. He wanted to get this exactly right and he was as nervous as hell. Hepa Lolesi arrived with her grown-up children, their partners and a guitar; Brown's eldest daughter, Alice, joined the group. Introductions, explanations and banter. Where did you get the oysters? They came from Marlborough. Yeah, but which rock, exactly?
Manaakitanga is defined as a noun and an action. Hospitality and kindness, the process of showing respect, generosity and care. The Depot kitchen sent out two plates of doughnuts, a riff on parāoa parai (fry bread) oozing savoury kina custard and spiked with powdered karengo and plump plops of salmon roe. Where's the kina? Hmmm, said Brown, "this is the gateway version for Pākehā - you probably don't want them to like kina anyway?!"
There would be tears before the pork hock. Brown hadn't seen the taonga being passed around the table - the toki, or adze-shaped pendant he would receive from Lolesi in lieu of missing last year's graduation from her class. She tells him the dark green stone is kawakawa pounamu.
"It sits in the ground for a long time, it gets covered up and stood on and trampled on and then it gets dug up . . . it reminds me of you my friend. Learning te reo Māori is a journey. Although it wasn't easy at times, you were successful and achieved your goals."
Brown is already wearing a pounamu. Should he take it off? "Leave it on," says Lolesi. "This is adding to you."
He thought it was going to be easy. Two years ago, when he signed up with his then partner, Brown expected the words to roll off his tongue. But he struggled in the classroom. Even basic pronunciation took months to stick, he says.
"I don't know if it's the kiwi way, or the Pākehā way, but if we get things wrong, we feel ashamed or run away . . . I feel like I've carried a guilt around with me for a long time about colonisation and what happened back then. It was a long time ago, but it's still very relevant. How can I, personally, add something or bring us together a little bit? My tiny little contribution is to be vulnerable and try to learn a beautiful language."
He admits: "I started feeling that I wasn't good enough and that I was never going to get there. But then it dawned on me that, actually, that was pretty arrogant to think I could just learn a language. Children are in immersion for how long, and when do they start using a few words?
"And now I'm learning whakairo, learning to carve and using my hands. I'm dyslexic and this has allowed me to find a way that I can still learn and be in that world, at my own pace."
There is freedom, says Brown, in making yourself vulnerable.
"I've struggled with this idea of perfectionism, that I have to be perfect, and that's because of the adopted situation and a lack of understanding around where I come from. The idea of something like this where I can't be perfect, makes me uncomfortable, but I think it's also therapy for me as well.
"I'm not good in the traditional classroom, but I find the carving really amazing for my mental health. Slowing down and making something meaningful. Creating something, by taking something away - that's not lost on me at all."
Hepa Lolesi is Tainui. She married her Samoan husband 38 years ago and they have six children and nine mokopuna. She is the self-described "favourite niece" who learned te reo - a language her grandmother did not speak - from her aunties, and worked for the Ministry of Education bilingual unit before her current role with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
Lolesi says every tauira (student) has "ngā piki me ngā heke - those ups and downs" but there is also a silent period.
"Most tauira go through that - not wanting to get it wrong, am I hearing it right? So as a kaiako, a teacher, we wait and we wait. Al was amazing because he didn't care if he got it wrong, which just truly opened that classroom up to everybody trying to do their best."
Finding out the why (and why not) of someone's learning journey is important, says Lolesi - but sometimes the "why now?" is even more profound.
"Time has picked them to come in and embrace the kaupapa. Usually, when we're talking about whakapapa and pepeha, that's the time they have to dig deep. Where they came from, their tīpuna, how did they get here and where are we going? Sometimes, I just see myself as a planter. I just spread the seeds and if the whenua is fertile enough, it will take. Every tauira grows at a different pace, you can't hurry it, you can't force it on anybody."
At Depot, Brown has always shunned the French phrase "amuse bouche" referring instead to the complementary plate that his kitchens send out to diners as "koha". At his Best Ugly Bagel stores, there is a new whakataukī or proverb written on the blackboard each week. And, from last Friday, diners ordering Depot's Matariki menu receive a wallet-sized card printed with a karakia for the kai and the land, water and sky that it comes from. Baby steps, he acknowledges, but the more knowledge you put in your kete, the better.
Has Brown experienced any backlash to his te reo study? Of course, he says and he really doesn't want to tell this story, but it underscores his point: He's hosting a function when it dawns on him the crowd is mostly white and very wealthy. An internal voice asks whether a mihi is the best way to open and he fights with himself, resolving that yes, he has made this commitment and this is the most important place for him to do this. Halfway through the first sentence of his greeting, a voice from the crowd rings out: "No need."
Brown: "I mean, you don't even need to ask that question because we all know there is embedded racism in this country and that people actually feel that way. I don't know whether this person was doing it to be funny. The room was silent and it ruined my evening to be honest. You know what really got me? Only one person came up to me and said sorry about what happened."
Brown has traced his birth parents and, as far as he knows, he has no Māori heritage. He says he finds the concept of whakapapa - the genealogy that connects generations - extremely powerful.
"How much strength can you feel, from knowing your ancestors have got your back? I can only observe as a Pākehā, but I watch and I'm drawn to it ... I guess I feel vulnerable that Māori might look at me and say 'who do you think you are, learning about our culture, you're just a Pākehā?' But I have to weigh that up. There are people who want to say that and make me feel small. But that's not going to stop me doing what I do, or learning - and I've got a long, long, long way to go."
Lolesi is a quiet listener who corrects his pronunciation and offers a prompt when he loses a word. "He ngākau Māori," she tells him. "You've got a Māori heart - or a Māori freckle in there somewhere! It comes out in your aroha for people."
How does that make him feel?
"Of course it makes my heart sing," says Brown. "It's like a lovely blanket. It's okay. What you're doing is okay."
Al Brown's tuatua and kūmara fritters
(From Eat Up New Zealand, Allen & Unwin, $65)
A fritter is such an informal but delicious thing to cook and eat. You can substitute different shellfish in this recipe, like mussels, pipi or cockles. The kūmara is an inherently Kiwi vege, helping bulk out the recipe if you are short on kai moana, and adds a subtle sweetness to the equation.
650g tuatua meat
350g kūmara cut into 1cm dice
½ cup finely diced red onion
¼ cup sweet chilli sauce
⅓ cup basil or parsley leaves, finely chopped
1.5 Tablespoons lemon juice
¾ cup plain flour
Flaky seas salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cooking oil, for frying
Lemon halves, to serve
Place tuatua in a colander to drain. Roughly chop and place in a medium-sized bowl.
Place kūmara in a small saucepan, cover with salted cold water, bring to a boil and cook for 2-3 minutes until just soft. Drain, spread on a tray and let cool.
Add kūmara to the bowl with the tuatua, followed by the onion, chilli sauce, basil (or parsley) and lemon juice. Mix through.
With a stick blender, blitz eggs and flour together in a bowl to create a thick batter. Add to the tuatua mixture and mix through. Remove about a cupful of the mix, blitz it with the stick blender and then fold this back in (this will help bind the fritter and hold it together when cooking). Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until required.
Place a cast iron or similar heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Once hot, add a splash of oil and cook off one small fritter to check and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Cook fritters to your desire size, until golden and cooked through. They should take a couple of minutes on each side. Serve with lemon halves. Eat now.