It’s been an incredible 3 years for Al Brown with Depot, Federal Deli and Best Ugly Bagels all opening in that time. Now, he’s released a book celebrating his first Auckland restaurant, the iconic Depot. Jono Park chatted to him on the eve of the release.
Congrats on the book Al. I was expecting a cookbook, and got so much more than a cookbook! How easy was it to distill what Depot is into one book?
As far as books go, it was the easiest to write. It was really gratifying writing about Depot and delving into what makes it a great restaurant, and really it comes down to the people. The book’s really transparent and no holds barred - I don’t hold anything back about how we did it.
Did you have a plan in your head of how you wanted Depot to be?
We had a vision. I kept thinking before we opened Depot 'when are we at our best when we’re eating'? Food is simply a vehicle for bringing people together. The great food memories that you have, there are two things present: who you’re eating with and where you’re eating. If you’re with your best mates under a tree on a hill watching the moon go down with tuatuas you caught and some warm sauvignon blanc…
The whole bach concept…
I keep coming back to that. It dawned on me - it’s been instilled on me at a very early age. When we were at the bach when I was a kid and there was the smell of someone lighting manuka and brown beer bottles being chilled and someone started to bring plates of food out, that was the first taste of true New Zealand hospitality. It’s a very pure kind without formality. That was the impetus of the vision of how Depot came about.
You opened just before the Rugby World Cup, right?
I think we got the timing right. Timing is everything and I think New Zealand is coming of age. Instead of being the best and fine dining and dots on plates, it’s 12 scallops on the plate instead of 3. Informality suits Kiwis very well, but that’s just as hard as fine dining cos if you don’t nail it, people think you’re lazy. We had no idea in our wildest dreams it would be this successful.
Did you ever expect as basic as the turbot slider to become an iconic dish?
I wrote down ‘sliders’ in a book about 20 years ago in a bar in Boston. Cool name, cool thing, shelved it but always remembered it was there. So then we wanted to create a little fish slider, we always knew we want the fish, the lemon mayo, the watercress… those were all fine. But we spent MONTHS on the bun. I kept sending it back to the baker saying ‘I want it more dirty… I want it like a nuclear soft bun!’. I wanted a white trash roll! All the lovely ingredients are fine, but it’s what you put it in that makes it. It’s a thing of beauty even though it’s a little hamburger.
And now sliders are everywhere!
This is why I’m sharing everything in the book. I didn’t invent the slider, or the wine on tap or the drinks in tumblers. But by pulling things in from lots of different places, it seems to have worked.