He used to be a fine dining chef in Wellington. Then he had an epiphany and moved to Auckland. Greg Dixon meets Al Brown, the man who learned to relax at dinner and made us do the same.
She sure is a peach. Sitting among the flashy, towering gin palaces at Auckland's Westhaven Marina, the good ship Nautilus is an understated beauty from another, more elegant era. She's by no means small - her wooden hull stretches 12 metres and she'll sleep six - but hers are the smooth, pleasing lines of a child's boat, the sort you might play with in a bath. She's a mature beauty too; the Nautilus was built by Oliver and Gilpin in Tauranga way back in 64. But her advancing age doesn't matter to her new owner, because Al Brown is in love.
Three years after opening the much-loved, much-praised Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar in SkyCity's Federal St precinct, 18 months after finally quitting Wellington for Auckland and a year or so after opening his two other businesses, the Federal Delicatessen and Best Ugly Bagels, Brown has treated himself to something he's always wanted.
"I still have a mortgage like everyone else," he says after we've settled into Nautilus' agreeably old-fashioned cabin, and into a bottle of Mt Edward Rose. "But the boat is paid for, it's my one toy. For all my hardwork, this is it. It feels really f***ing good that this is the spoils of working hard."
Not that he wants to skite. "I don't like w***ers," he growls at one point. But there are two reasons for his suggesting the boat as the place to have a chat. The first is that his home - my choice for our talk - is being renovated so he offered his other private space. The second reason is that he largely wrote his new book here.
Published this week, it's about his other beautiful machine, the restaurant that made him in Auckland. Titled Depot, it not just a book of recipes, though if you want to know the secret to making their wildly popular fish sliders with preserved lemon mayo and watercress, it's in there. No, the new book, a very handsome volume subtitled a "biography of a restaurant (with recipes)", is as much a love letter to his restaurant and its people as it is to Depot's food.
"Two words that should never be in the same sentence are 'secret' and 'recipe'. A recipe is just food, mate. You can have any recipe you want, I know that I can do it better than you anyway, you know what I mean. [The book] is kind of a how-to [of Depot]: how did they do it? It's completely transparent. But the point I'm trying to make, what makes a success of Depot is not the walls or the food or the wine or anything, it's the people and the core staff that I've got.
"My success has been about - and this is boring and 'yawn, yawn' - but it has been about surrounding myself with bloody awesome people."
It's also been about the transformation of Al Brown. And if you want to know the man, who he was and what he is now, look no further than his restaurants.
The beautiful machine opened its doors three weeks before the World Cup came to town back in 2011. The idea, as Brown explains in the book, was to take the essence of a bach at the beach - good times, mismatched crockery, plenty of seafood and good plonk to share - and recreate it, the vibe of the thing as it were, in a restaurant in the utterly urban landscape of Federal St next to SkyCity's Grand Hotel.
"The idea - and it sounds blasphemous - was how can we commercialise the bach? It's like a sacred thing that's ours."
People said it wouldn't work. Pouring wine from bar taps and drinking it from tumblers? Insanity! Having old mackerel cans on every table to hold the cutlery? Lunacy! No bookings allowed? Utter folly!
Photo / Jason Oxenham
Depot was of course a galloping, out-of-control success from the moment it opened. Take that, doubters.
"It just struck a chord," Brown enthuses. "Whether the time was right or whatever, people - black, white, gay, straight, fat, skinny, it doesn't matter - feel comfortable when they step over the threshold because it is not confronting."
What it absolutely is, though, is a complete departure for Brown, not just from his home in Wellington but from the kind of food he made his reputation cooking.
Brown's first restaurant was Logan Brown in Wellington, which he started with mate Steve Logan back in 1996. If you haven't visited, let me tell you that Logan Brown is a hymn to fine dining. Quartered in central Welly in a beautiful and grand corner building that was once a National Bank, it is a place of crisp white tablecloths and the sort of hush you find when people are spending eye-wateringly large sums of money. It has been a windy city institution since it opened and, you might have thought, given a first restaurant might be something like a first child, that Brown might have written a book about it. But no.
"Logan Brown was my first restaurant and it was great," says Brown, who became a silent partner before finally selling his share 18 months ago. "But why I've written the book about Depot is that I've sort of found myself as a cook here. Like a lot of Kiwis I travelled ... came back and it was all about fine dining. I wanted to be the fine dining chef and do all that sort of thing. And we [Logan Brown] won awards and it went very well and it's still open today and does very well. But part of the reason I left the partnership is that I actually didn't like fine dining, I found I didn't like it.
"It felt a little bit fraudulent compared to where I am now. I thought that's what I wanted, that if I wanted to be a cook then I wanted to be the best cook. At the time fine dining was the pinnacle. So you had to be that. But once I got up there, I looked around" - he chuckles ruefully - "and went 'actually it's not what I want. It doesn't fit my character because actually my character is just this bloody happy-go-lucky, fun guy who loves doing food and service'."
It's just as well, then, his parents didn't get their way.
The past seems to be just another ingredient for Brown. The 49-year-old gives the impression he's not much interested in it, or at least not much interested in talking about it.
His past is not leaving him alone, however. When I ask him about one feature of it, he announces he'll only talk about it off the record. It's fair to say that beneath the surface - which is Al Brown the success and Al Brown the "just this bloody happy-go-lucky, fun guy" - there is another Al Brown that, for the moment anyway, he doesn't want to discuss publicly.
In any case, his history is not what you expect. The guy who established two of the most urbane and stylish eating joints in a city obsessed with stylish and urbane eating joints, is a country boy, the adopted only son of a Wairapapa farmer.
The family plan was that once he'd been educated at Masterton's prestigious private schools - Hadlow to the age of 9 and then Rathkeale College - he would take over the farm. But when it came to it, school went badly - he had to sit School Certificate twice and was booted out of Rathkeale - and he ended up working as a shepherd. He still might have become a farmer. But, after his parents divorced, he took the opportunity to quit Wairapapa and ditch the farm. He ended up working at the Magic Wok in downtown Wellington, making wontons and sweet and sour pork.
"I was naughty at school. I was thrown out of school for selling weed. That was a great learning thing, came down with a big thump. All those life lessons. I kind of liked pushing the boundaries a bit.
Photo / Jason Oxenham
"F***, I'd gone from farming, as a shepherd -because I was the only son I was meant to take over the farm - to the city. When my parents split up, that was a sort of epiphany for me. I suddenly realised 'shit I can do what I like now'. I went there [to Wellington] and was suddenly earning twice as much for half the amount of time. Then I did a bit of hospo. But once I started travelling, doing my OE by myself, I started waiting tables and became absolutely enamoured with kitchens."
What did he like about cooking? "Everyone had a knife! There was fire everywhere! There were no seats in the kitchen. There was yelling and screaming and out of it all came these amazing plates of food."
He'd headed first for Canada - he had family there - before going on to the United States, working in variety of kitchens in Montreal, San Diego, New Orleans and New York, learning his trade in everything from student hang-outs to fine dining restaurants. He eventually completed a culinary arts degree at the New England Culinary Institute. After four years cooking and learning, he came home.
"When I came back to New Zealand, I felt I had to prove something. Maybe that's something that goes through [my life]. I don't know why ... "
But who are you proving something too, I asked?
"I don't know. I have no idea ... no one." He's silent for a moment. "To myself probably, that I can do it."
Money. I kept mentioning it. Brown eventually got hosed off with me. "Mate, you're obsessed with that. We've got no money! Besides this" - he meant the boat - "I have a house in Ellerslie, the middle of Ellerslie, which we've got a massive mortgage on. Money still worries me. The accountant this week walked into the office and said 'Al, any expenditure over $1000, I want to know about.' So we're not by any stretch [rich]. That's the reality of it."
So, not rich then. But hardly uncomfortable. The boat, which is worth in the region of $100,000, is paid for. The house in Ellerslie, a handsome 1910s transitional villa he and wife Lizzie bought for $1.18 million last year, is currently being renovated. And Brown drives a late-model SUV.
Since opening Depot in 2011 - a business that is a joint venture with SkyCity - he's started Best Ugly Bagels by himself in April last year and opened his second Auckland restaurant, the Fed, a NYC-style diner which is also a co-venture with SkyCity, a year ago, right next door to Depot. It's seems standing still is not in his nature.
"I love achieving and I love that I can walk into the Fed and we nailed it, eventually. Some things take a little longer. The Newmarket Best Ugly [store], which I thought would smash it out of the park, doesn't do as well as the original - yet. But it will. I think it is just the idea of conquering something ... "
We kick the idea of success around for a bit; success is word he uses often. But for someone who is so keen on it and has experienced his share of it in the restaurant business, doing TV food shows and in publishing (his cookbook Go Fish! has sold 40,000 copies, a stonking number for a New Zealand book), he has difficultly articulating what success means to him.
"I'm still trying to work that out ... "
Is it winning? I ask.
"It's winning, I think, and it's working it out ... When I started doing things, and I'm ambitious I guess, I didn't know whether I wanted to be a Jamie Oliver or a real superstar in cooking. But I'm absolutely adamant that I love the economies of scale I've got in the business now, I have a manager, I have an accountant, I have someone who does social media, because that's now a big part of it, a PA, a communications manager and then all the restaurants with all the wonderful staff that work in them.
"I don't want to be like the Hip Group or Simon Gault. I still have to have a connection with the places. I don't enjoy not knowing people's names and I'll admit that I don't know everyone's name, in restaurant businesses people are changing all the time. But even if I don't know their name I'm still working for them and I enjoy that. Success ... it's such a weird ... such an obvious question."
And then he says something strange: "I still don't know why I do what I do."
What does that mean?
"I just know that I'm not very good at saying no. I love the challenge and I love risk, I love the idea of doing something that other people can't do. But I don't do it for the sake of doing it, if that makes sense."
Not really, when I thought about it. But to put his success into context, he has failed. Big time. About 10 years ago he and Logan invested hundreds of thousands in a thing called the "Grill Slinger", a sort of barbecue tool belt, which they reckoned was going to make them rich. "After the first trade show we were talking about what colour helicopters we were going to buy.
"We got them, the Grill Slingers, designed and we went to barbecue shows all over the world and we sold something like 30,000 units. Never made a penny. In fact, lost money.
"We were just dreamers. It was la-la land I think. It was a huge learning curve. We loved the ride. Probably the lesson I learned is that anyone can design anything but you've got to sell the bloody thing."
The gin palaces of Westhaven have their sterns pointed at the quay. All the better for being seen while entertaining. Not so the good ship Nautilus. She is moored bow first. Privacy demands it.
The philosophy behind Depot came at the right time for Auckland, just as the World Cup came to town. Photo / Jason Oxenham
For the high profile chef, restaurateur, TV food guy and, for one night only at a packed Aotea Centre back in 2011, an interviewer (he lightly grilled the great and scary restaurant critic A.A. Gill), success has certainly meant loss of anonymity. But, for God's sake, don't call Brown a celebrity chef. He hates it, even if food has made him famous, famous enough for example to be hired, along with 42Below founder Geoff Ross, cricketer-turned-businessman Dion Nash and fashion designer Kate Sylvester, to be a billboard star by telco 2Degrees.
"I'm in the public eye quite a lot, so I do enjoy my own company and enjoy getting away from it."
The boat means privacy, but it also means he can spend more time with the family, with wife Lizzie, a former corporate lawyer who is completing a masters in creative writing, and their two girls, Alice, 15 and Connie, 13. The boat means summer in the Hauraki Gulf. Well, that's the plan.
"I want to be able to relax more," he groans at one point, "I'm not good at relaxing." Presumably this, and with his tendency to worry and the trouble he has with sleeping are all connected to his drive to succeed - and the thing that he says is his major weakness: his perfectionism.
But he's working on that. If Depot has taught him anything, it's taught him not to be so bloody uptight.
"Before if you put a plate of food up [on the pass] and the guy had put the parsley there, I'd [move it to where I wanted it]. Always, no matter what. I don't know whether that was just because I had to do it myself or that I thought it looked better there. But now I go 'f*** no one gives a f*** about the parsley'.
"I'm understanding, too, the importance of actually spending some time with the family. I get that a bit blurred at times. I think I've let down the girls ... not let them down, but through work commitments I've missed [things]. But I guess if I hadn't done those things [at work] we couldn't have gone skiing or gone to Mexico [last Christmas]. I guess it's just a balancing act."
It is, because of course the beautiful machine needs him too. He works two nights a week at Depot, working the floor, working the punters. "As much as I love service and love what I do, I am very aware that by being on the floor I'm helping my business and I'm connecting with people. There'll be half a dozen people who will ask for a selfie or a photo when I'm there tonight. No problem. I make them feel very comfortable. Service is the only thing that doesn't cost me anything, you just keep giving it."
Long may the service and the selfies keep the lady Nautilus moored at Westhaven - and the rest of us in fish sliders with preserved lemon mayo and watercress.
Depot: Biography of a Restaurant by Al Brown (Random House $70) is published on Friday.