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Hospitality powerhouse, Al Brown discusses all things bagels

When Al Brown puts his name behind a restaurant, it’s almost certain that he has a recipe for success, and Best Ugly Bagels is no exception. Tucked away in Newmarket’s Osborne Lane, Best Ugly Bagels specialises in Montreal style bagels that are hand rolled and deliciously chewy. Zara Overton caught up with Al to learn more about the bagel business, cooking at home and his love of fishing…

N. How did you know that you were destined for a career in food/cooking?

I was always hungry!

N. Where did you grow up in New Zealand? How has your upbringing influenced you?

On a farm in the Wairarapa. Growing up in a rural situation, we grew most of our own vegetables, ate ‘home kill’ and as I kid I was mad about hunting, so we ate quite a bit of wild game. So being so close to where everything was essentially harvested, this still influences me today.

N. What sparked your interest in bagels?

I started my ‘OE’ in Montreal, where there is a large Jewish community. Bagels to ‘Montrealers’ is like Vogels to Kiwi’s… it’s a daily staple.

N. How do you start your mornings?

I walk for an hour every morning, have a cup of instant coffee and head to work.

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N. Can you tell us a bit about the name… why ‘Best Ugly Bagels’?

‘Best Ugly’ is all about seeing beauty in the unusual or imperfect. It’s about loving something that you personally connect with – your old fishing rod, faded out sweatshirt, and funny old cake tin etc. All of our bagels are hand rolled and cooked in a wood-fired oven, so they are all far from perfect. They are all individual though with each one having a slightly different character or patina than the other. There is without question beauty in ugliness.

N. Aside from your numerous restaurants and eateries, cookbooks and tv shows, has there been a particular moment in your career that stands out as a favourite memory?

Nothing really comes to mind. What I do know is that I have always felt I have been lucky all my life by surrounding myself with a bunch of clever people who have been very instrumental in any success that I have had along the way.

N. Most popular bagel on the Best Ugly menu?

Tomato Avocado & Basil (T.A.B).

N. Best Ugly’s Newmarket bagelry has long been a staple of Osborne Lane with its inviting courtyard and down to earth vibe. It has also since been joined by several other well-known eateries. Why did you decide to open in Osborne Lane?

I love the way that Osborne Lane is a special part of Newmarket and slightly off the regular beaten path. There is a real sense of arrival and discovery when you walk through all the surrounding streets, lanes and alleys.

N. Is there a secret that goes into the art of making a bagel?

There are no secrets with anything we do. After all, you can watch the whole bagel making process from start to finish in a number of our outlets. However the real magic comes from our team of extraordinary bakers. With a wood-fired oven there is no temperature control to turn the heat up or down. It’s all done by sight, feel, concentration and a whole lot of love.

N. What is your favourite bagel topping?

It really depends on time of the year, time of the day, and how I’m feeling – if I’ve over imbibed the night before, the Yodi or the Tina Tuna are my go-tos. Much of the time I just enjoy a simple sesame bagel with a lick of butter and a smear of ‘Marshes’ clover honey.

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N. You were one of NZ’s first to open a specialty bagelry, and we’ve now seen a trend catch on with a growing number of bagel joints around the country. However amongst the bagel obsessed, Best Ugly still reigns supreme. How do you keep ahead of the competition?

I guess the biggest thing is that most of the other bagel shops don’t make their own bagels. They use store bought or factory made. Best Ugly Bagels are a specialty bagel, hand rolled and baked fresh throughout the day in a genuine purpose built wood-fired oven. Another big difference is that we make a genuine Montreal style bagel, which is quite different to the more commonly known New York style bagel. The Montreal style (Polish Jewish recipe) is much lighter and less doughy than its New York cousin.

N. What do you do in your down-time?

I love to fish…

N. As well as Best Ugly Bagels, you also own and run popular Auckland restaurants, Depot and Federal Delicatessen, and formerly Wellington’s iconic Logan Brown. How do you keep up with what’s happening with each one?

As I have alluded to, I seem to have a knack for surrounding myself with hard working staff that do most of the ‘heavy lifting’ in the businesses, for which I am eternally grateful. However, you can still find me a couple of nights a week working the floor as a waiter in ‘The Fed’ or ‘Depot’. I still love being part of the team, in a high octane hospo environment, however these days there is a lot more time spent working on the various businesses than actually working in them.

N. How do you fit work in with your family life?

Yes it has definitely been a balancing act for a long time. I guess I try and reason with myself that it’s all about quality time and not so much quantity. I’m trying to say ‘no’ more, which is both difficult and liberating at the same time

N. What is your favourite holiday destination in New Zealand and why?

To be honest I simply adore every inch of this extraordinary country we are all lucky enough to call home. A favourite holiday destination? Anywhere in the Far North usually ticks all the boxes!

N. Food blogger and critic Albert Cho (@eatlitfood) regularly praises your food and eateries as some of the best in Auckland. How has social media changed the way you work?

Personally, I fight social media as much as I can. I know it’s here to stay in one shape or another, however as my daughters will attest, I’m definitely ‘old school’. A face-to-face conversation, a handshake or a hug is how I like to operate. I begrudgingly post the odd photo on Instagram if I feel it is relevant or news worthy. Selfies? Not so much!
For the business, I feel you just have to take the good with the bad. Hospo is a tough game – most of us all in the industry are trying our best. We are human beings dealing with human beings. I’d like to think most of the time we get it right, however I’d be the first to put up my hand and admit every so often we drop the ball and get it wrong. The thing is, to a certain extent, every customer you serve is a critic of some degree. Take the negative on the chin, and don’t get too excited about the positive!

N. What is your go-to recipe/meal for entertaining at home?

As it’s summer… a ceviche of some sort.

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N. What are you reading at the moment?

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson – beauty, obsession and the natural history heist of the century. If you have any interest in fly fishing or fly tying it’s a bloody ripper of a read.

N. If you could prepare a meal for anyone (living or dead) who would it be and what would you serve?

Neil Young – anything he wanted.

N. Name five things we’d find in your fridge.

Cheese, milk, chocolate, relishes and chutneys.

N.It’s 10am on a Sunday morning, where will we find you and what are you doing?

Hopefully out chasing kingfish and snapper – fly fishing with my brother Jeremy (GM of Best Ugly).

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N. What is Newmarket’s best kept secret?

The people that work throughout this terrific precinct. There is a real sense of togetherness in all retail and hospitality in Newmarket. Top shelf people delivering top shelf service!

N. What’s next for you?

There are always plenty of challenges and fun stuff on the horizon. Watch this space.

3A York Street bestugly.co.nz

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