Crispy Ham Hocks Are Giving Action Bronson and Kiwis the Feels at This New Zealand Restaurant

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Crispy Ham Hocks Are Giving Action Bronson and Kiwis the Feels at This New Zealand Restaurant

When Depot opened on Auckland’s Federal Street in 2011, many Kiwis lost their minds over an inimitable experience that evokes unexpected—and welcomed—feelings.

In late 2011, a restaurant called Depot opened on Auckland's Federal Street and we all lost our minds. The waiting time for a table was hours-long, and despite the fact that Kiwis are generally too scared of commitment to wait for most things, we waited for Depot because the food was amazing and the experience made us feel things. Part of that was hype—the chef behind it was well-loved TV personality and all-round top Kiwi bloke, Al Brown—but most of the excitement was simply because Depot gave us something all of our own. It served up our identity on a low-key plate. We lapped it up.

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Hayden Scott, left, with Al Brown, right.

I try to explain this feeling to Al Brown as he works on a new recipe in his test kitchen with right-hand-chef, Hayden Scott. "I think [Depot] represents our character," he agrees, "as a country, we're not actually very good at formal, but we're brilliant at informality. We're more comfortable with our elbows on the table than in a fine dining situation. I think that as a country we're now really comfortable with that."

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Al Brown cooking pork hock in his test kitchen.

During the summer in New Zealand, most of us desert the cities and head to the coast. Many Kiwis have access to a little waterfront shack tucked away somewhere that we call a Bach: a simple, often tatty summer dwelling filled with old furniture, mismatched cutlery, and important family memories. "The bach is where most of us as Kiwis feel comfortable, not threatened," says Al, "everything can be a bit wonky, but they're happy places and generous places, and they're places of laughter, and that's what we tried to do [at Depot], to recreate that."

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That intention greets you the moment you walk into the restaurant. The furniture is chunky and tactile, the cutlery sits on a corner of each table in old, ratty tins, and there's New Zealand wine on tap, served in tumblers. There is a raw bar near the door packed with ice and piled high with fresh oysters and clams. It would feel kitsch if it weren't so familiar, so clearly reflected in our memories.

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Dinner crowd at Depot.

Al remembers as a kid, and as a young chef working in Montreal, reading stories about famous chefs growing up in beautiful places like Tuscany and the South of France. "I used to feel this tinge of jealousy because it all sounded so romantic and wonderful," says Al, "and I just grew up on a farm in the Wairarapa… but now I think about it, and shit, I had an incredible food upbringing. We were growing vegetables and going to the beach and digging for pipis (clams) and dragging a net for flounder." Kiwis are (usually) humble to the core, incapable of making a fuss, and that attitude affects the way we feel about everything homegrown. What Al achieved with Depot was to mythologise our food culture in ways we'd never been able to before. "Our food is just so full of flavor: We're close to the source, our oceans are wonderful, and all we need to do is cook it correctly with a bit of salt and pepper and a bit of butter and love."

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When Al opened Depot, he placed protégé Kyle Street in the head chef role. Five years later, Street is poised to open his own restaurant, Culprit, just down the road. You could call it a passing of the torch, but to me it feels more like the fanning of a flame. "We share a very similar philosophy around food," says Al. It's about beautiful produce, about generosity and big, surprising but still comforting flavours. Most of the dishes at Depot are cooked in a wood fire oven or over a charcoal grill, both of which are lit each morning at 8.30 AM and stoked until 11 PM every night. This is the fire that produces Depot's famous pork hock, with great pieces of golden crackling, served with an apple and horseradish salsa verde. It's one of the few dishes that never leave the menu, year-round, along with the ubiquitous turbot sliders (ordered by nearly every table), the kingfish sashimi, the hapuka belly, and the sugar pie.

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The famous pork hock at Depot.

All of these dishes have a story. Some begin with a small supplier in a small town, others with a lost recipe rediscovered on a torn page in a notebook twenty years later, but Al admits that the food and its stories are just one part of the success of Depot. "I think it's more the staff," he says. "I've always believed that anyone can copy anything, but they can't take your soul or your heart or your culture."

Long-standing restaurant manager Joe Williams and Al have a work-hard play-hard philosophy when it comes to service. "We want our staff to be service junkies. They need their hit…" He pauses to taste a dish, exclaims, offers me a spoonful and then continues, philosophizing the oft-forgotten truth that giving a present provides a greater sense of satisfaction than receiving one, "that's what service is: It's about making people happy, and that's what we've concentrated on."

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Al strikes me as the living, fizzing embodiment of his manifold philosophies on food and life—a genuine, happy, energetic, tireless chef who struggles to keep a straight face in a photo while grumbling good-naturedly about people always wanting to see "happy Al." I leave thinking that his recipes for happiness and timeless restaurants are similar: filled with good people, generosity, gratitude, and connection. Perhaps his greatest skill is in packaging up and replicating those philosophies for our enjoyment, and that's the thrill that keeps him bouncing from project to project. If he just so happens to change the way Kiwis feel about their food culture, or the way the world feels about New Zealand cuisine in the process, well, that's just a happy accident.

Wanna see more of Depot? Watch Action Bronson pay Al Brown's crew a visit on the third episode from the second season of Fuck, That's Delicious, only on VICELAND.