Al Brown is, without question (in my opinion), a national treasure, not unlike Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein in the United Kingdom. A warm, positive figure, who makes cooking look accessible yet luxurious at the same time. He feels like, if you met him, he'd warmly welcome you over and insist on you having a drink and putting your feet up before you could even utter the words 'Eat Up New Zealand' (incidentally the title of his latest book!). And after having actually met him at Pickle & Pie, I can confirm that the man lives up to his reputation. While he may no longer reside in Wellington, he is, in our minds, a Wellingtonian until the end.
At the start of our discussion, at the not-long-opened but already popular Pickle and Pie, he tells me that the owners sent him a jar of pickles (they sent me some too!). Shortly, we receive marshmallow, much to Brown’s glee. You can see even when he is in interview mode, he’s still thinking about food. “They shouldn’t leave the pastrami out like that” he mutters glancing over his shoulder in the manner of a concerned aunt at a family Christmas dinner, not unkindly but concerned. “It will dry out!” However, later as I wave over Tim, one of the owners over (I mean, basically, when Al Brown turns up in your kitchen, you say hi) he is warm, open and curious like a child asking about how to make a cake.
He recently released ‘Eat Up New Zealand’, a book that I’ve already stuck the pages together with use. “When people used to ask me, I’d say New Zealand was a culinary wasteland. Now, having written Eat Up, I’ve changed my mind.”
“I was born in a hospital in Wellington,” says Al. “But grew up on a farm in the Wairarapa.” Brown was adopted and lived just out of Masterton. “It was very rural. I loved hunting, foraging, eeling. We had an orchard, and herbs (only two but they did us well). I was quite a loner with a great imagination. I’d go all over the farm, down the gullies and native bush. It was a big playground for kids.”
What are Al’s first memories of food and cooking?
Living on a farm meant that Al was required to chip in with the slaughtering of animals. By the time he was 10 he could tell you all about every cut of the animal. “Now it’s trendy not to waste the animal and know it inside out. Shit – we were doing that fifty years ago!” He grew up having his families in the Castle Point campground and all his days were around low-tide, playing in the ocean and fossicking for paua and seeking out seafood like crayfish and flounders. “From such a young age I was connected to food, and connected to the food of this country. I think we often overlook the connection we have to our land and our food.” I interrupt Al. “It’s a cliché, but at least we know how lucky we are.” Brown agrees.
When it came to sweets, it was a DIY experience from the Edmonds cookbook. “For rural kids, baking was what we did. There was no dairy that we could buy sweets from (and boy do I have a sweet tooth!) so we made our own” Al says.
While he loved cooking, as the oldest son Al was expected to take over the farm. “My father was disappointed. He didn’t understand I wanted to cook for a living.”
What was school like for Al Brown?
Al went to boarding school in high school. While he loved the social side the academic side was less for him. “I was naughty at school but I wasn’t that bad. I was dyslexic so a C+ was as good as I ever got at things. I was expelled in my last year – having been found selling joints” Al Brown laughs. “My first entrepreneurial venture.” Other fond memories include singing Neil Young in the showers with his schoolmates. “You go home once every three weeks for one night and all you have is a side draw with your worldly possessions. Friendships are everything.”
What was his first job and how did he get the jolt to decide to pursue cooking?
Al worked as a shepherd on a farm in the Hawkes Bay after being kicked out of school. It was only when his parents split up he resolved to change his life. “I sold my two sheepdogs and moved to Wellington. My first job was making wantons at the Magic Wok in the BNZ Centre – the first food court in the country” Al says. “I went back to food because I was drawn to it. I loved every minute of it, living in the city, earning twice as much money. After a year or two, I decided I wanted to learn about hospitality, so I decided to go and work at the Sharella Motor Inn. I went to learn and was a trainee manager. I’d make beds, tend the bar, did a bit of kitchen work.” After this, Brown decided to learn more about liquor so went to work at the Western Park Tavern where Steve Logan employed me.”
After that, Al decided to travel. It was while doing this he became enamoured with kitchens. “Out of the chaos came beautiful food!” Brown explains. “I was hooked as started working illegally in restaurants around North America. San Diego; New Orleans; Montréal. Eventually, I was deported but I knew I wanted to cook for a living.”
Al talked his way back into North America to study culinary arts in Vermont. He took up cooking all over the world before returning to New Zealand and working in his first kitchen at City Bistro, now Nikau. After another interlude overseas cooking at an Embassy, Al hooked up with Steve Logan and decided to do Logan Brown. “That was a pretty successful restaurant and it’s still going,” Brown says. The restaurant also incubates great Wellington talent, like Shepherd Elliot, owner of Shepherd. “Recipes are for sharing, for passing on. They’re not of national importance but to be shared with others” comments Al.
How did his food philosophy mature?
While proud of those days, Al decided to do other things. After filming ‘Hunger for the Wild’ he decided he wanted to pursue his own agenda. He also had established a strong belief in the joy of simple food he wanted to chase. "The whole idea of chef's trying to re-create the wheel bores me," he says. "Food to me is just a vehicle for bringing people together. I mean, what will I remember about this interview with you? You, your pink dress and the marshmallow! It wasn't until I walked in I realised they'd sent the bread and butter pickles! Food memories are of people and place."
Al also has little time for those who don't know how to do the basics well and want to graduate to arranging edible flowers on plates too soon. "It's a concern that people want to do that straight away. You have to work hard to get there, like any apprenticeship. There are some 'Foodies' who will go and spent thousands of dollars on a meal, and will stay it is great, but when they drive home that sausage roll still looks pretty great" he laughs.
Al now lives in Auckland but still adores Wellington. "I think the thing that comes to mind is 'Edge'. It's on the edge of New Zealand, on the edge of the world, on the edge of a fault line" Al says "It blows its tits off sometimes but it has so much character and strength. The buildings and topography of the city. There's a self-confidence and a Wellington vibe. I adored living in Wellington (but still love living in Auckland too!)"