15 Aug 2020

The Mixtape: Al Brown

From The Mixtape, 4:05 pm on 15 August 2020

Celebrity chef, restaurateur and author Al Brown joins Charlotte Ryan to select songs and share stories on the RNZ Music Mixtape.

Al Brown

Al Brown Photo: Supplied

Al Brown grew up on a farm in Wairarapa. He's a keen fisherman, loves the outdoors, and happens to own three of Auckland’s top eateries; The Depot, Federal Delicatessen, and Best Ugly Bagels.

He’s also a huge music fan: “When people hear a song they love, you've got them.” He reckons music is essential to any great dining experience: “When you have that mixture of music and chatter or laughter, people don't realise the effect it's having on them."

“If you have fish and chips on the beach, on a beautiful sunset after a great day, it will be the best fish and chips that you've had in a long time. Throw in a layer of music, even more."

Al joined Charlotte Ryan to select songs and talk candidly about love, loss and finding comfort in music.

Pickin' On - ‘Faithfully’ (Journey cover)

Al Brown: “I’ve fallen in love again.”

“Working in a restaurant was really hard on family life as well and relationships. And look, first and foremost I separated from Lizzie [Lang] who I still simply adore. She's a very special person. We worked out that there was a better way. And we brought our children into that conversation about 18 months before we separated, and we still see each other most days. And she's part of the business.

“I owe Lizzie a huge amount. She stood by me and, she'll hate me saying this, I used to call her, ‘Miss Yes’, because she'd always let me do anything I wanted to do, which is a really sweet thing to do. It just didn't work out in the end. There were no slamming doors. We worked it out and it's been a bit of a revelation, I think for both of us.

“But yeah, I've met someone else, Vicky. We were both doing te reo classes this year together. So ‘Vicky’ in te reo is ‘Wiki’, that's why I call her ‘Wiki’, I love that. She's great, and life moves on and we're doing some lovely things together. And I adore her. Yeah.

“So this is, It's just a lovely song and the lyrics … I think there's a parallel to cooking a little bit. One of the lines I think is, "Loving a music man is hard because they're always on the road,” which feels a little bit like a chef. A whole lot of nights I wouldn't be at home because it's important for me to be with my team - that's my other family.

“That goes for Lizzie as well, she put up with a lot of times I was away and nights. But this is a song and it's dedicated to, Wiki, to Vicky, ‘Faithfully’."

AUT’s UniPrep school-leavers choir - ‘This is Me’ (from musical The Greatest Showman)

“The song means a huge amount to me because it was the song that that played when a very close friend of mine died in an accident. [Pilot] Matt Wallis who died [in a helicopter crash] a couple of years ago.

“Last week was the anniversary of his amazing life. His service was held in a massive hangar. A beautiful funeral, if there is such a thing, and a very, very powerful song. It became very important to me.

“I came across these school leavers from Auckland doing a rendition of it. It’s all about them leaving and singing the song in their last week of school before they left. So there's just these beautiful parallels. It's a special song.

“Matt had a twinkle in his eye and he could work a room. No one could work a room like him. He could remember people's names and he made everyone feel great."

Valerie June - ‘It's a Long Lonely Road’

"Losing friends has had a huge effect on me. And that’s why I picked these songs, I listen to them a lot because it's the connection with the people.

“The last four funerals I've been to have been accidents of friends dying. It shows how special life is. It’s pretty cliched, but you have to think, and you have to love, and you have to realise how fortunate we are to live a life because it can be taken from you very, very quickly.”

“Then when Nick [Matt’s brother] passed away [three months later in a helicopter crash] this next song, ‘Long Lonely Road’ was used on a video they'd shot just before Nick passed away. It's another video that I watch a lot and think about Nick and think about Matt and they'll always be part of my Mixtape.”

Neil Young - ‘Tell Me Why’ (live at Massey Hall 1971)

“I went to boarding school at age eight … I was lucky I wasn't bullied or anything like that, but it's a pretty lonely place. You're not around your family, you only see your family every three weeks, that sort of thing.

“I remember hearing Neil Young for the first time, I think it was the Live Rust album. The lyrics and the solitude… music for me, it's like a comfort blanket at times … those songs that really, really get inside you, for a whole bunch of different reasons, they’re like your best friends you carry around with you for life.”

Bob Dylan - ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

“Oh, I’m sailin' away my own true love

I’m a-sailin' away in the morning

Is there somethin' I can send you from across the sea

From the place that I’ll be landing?”

I’ve always really enjoyed my own company, right from really early age, as a young boy on the farm. I’d wander away with my imagination and a stick and I could do that for long, long periods of time.

“So traveling to me was never about living in London in a flat with a whole bunch of Kiwis or anything. I always wanted to travel by myself because I felt that it gave me so many more opportunities to meet people.

“To me, travel is all about learning and exploring and understanding different cultures and environments and cuisines and everything else. So I miss it, but to travel this country is... and that's what the campaign's all about now, let's get out and see the place.

“I've seen a lot of the country, but we used to drive from Wellington to Ahipara / 90 Mile Beach. It took two days to get up to the Far North.

“I just simply love the Pōhutakwa, the communities up there, how it's the Winterless North, the fishing, the swimming and the shellfish. It’s a beautiful part of the country.

“But so is Stuart Island. So is the Catlins, so is the West Coast. So is Gisborne. We live in New Zealand, it's extraordinary … it's just full of wonderful people, and we're not perfect by any stretch, but it's just heaven on earth, this country. I’m a massive fan.

“I’ve traveled quite a lot and I hope that we get to travel again and see other parts of the world, but NZ, just love it. Absolutely love it.”

Rodriguez - ‘Sugar Man’

"I saw the film [Rodrigues documentary] Searching for Sugar Man just recently, it blew me away. But a great friend of mine, when I was living in Wellington about eight or nine years ago, he came over with a bottle of wine on a Friday night with his wife and we were by the fire. He said, "You got to listen to this album," and I was simply... I just love this album and love all his lyrics."

Al finished his chat with Charlotte with some thoughts on informal dining in Aotearoa.

I went into fine dining. We opened [Wellington restaurant] Logan Brown in 1996 when I first got out of school. I thought that's what I had to do. I realised after 10 years that the jacket didn't fit and that informality is what we do best in this country.

“I kept thinking, ‘When are we at our best? What are the food memories that we really, really love? When are we best when we're eating?’ And it always just came back to the campground, the beach, the crib, the mare. Places where people feel comfortable.

“It didn't matter whether you're a high court judge or you're a freezing worker, anonymity reigns supreme, and you'll drink out of a jam jar, it doesn't matter. It's the conviviality of bringing people together.

“We’re beginning to understand that informality is our ace card. New Zealanders do informality better than anyone else in the world. That's because we love that barbecue or lighting a fire, or we've grown up at the beach where you can spear flounder at low tide, or you can dig for pipi.

“We always thought we needed to be like the rest of the world, but finally, everyone wants to be like us.”

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