Search

Insatiable

Mel Brown: "There's a sense of empowerment to say yes, we can do it"

With a career that spans kitchens, front-of-house and now wine sales, Mel Brown is no stranger to the hospitality world. She speaks about New Zealand wine, her time working with Peter Gordon and the power women can have in the industry

Mel Brown may have been living in the UK for 18 years, but she has built a career and a business out of connecting New Zealand wines with the British market. A passion born from her time working for Peter Gordon at The Providores and Kopapa, Brown went on to set up a number of businesses, including Specialist Cellars – her wine store and online shop selling New World wines with a Kiwi focus – and The Laundry, a french-leaning bistro-style restaurant in Brixton.

While it may have made its way into wine, Brown’s career didn’t start there. She began working in kitchens in her home country, before travelling to the UK for what was originally meant to be a two year Overseas Experience, as it's commonly called in New Zealand. “I said to mum, I’m going to be gone two years,” Brown tells me, “and here I am, 18 years later.”

These initial stages of her career were focused on cooking. “My first introduction to kitchens was with Hamish Brown, who is the father of my beautiful daughter and now my ex husband and my best friend,” she says. “He was so compassionate and grounded and level headed, as well as being nurturing in a kitchen. So that very initial kitchen environment that I had experienced was beautiful compared to what we saw on TV 20 years ago with Gordon Ramsay. It was nothing like that. It was a very calm, centred, grounded environment. Yes, I was probably one of two women in the kitchen at the time, but I never saw that as a problem – I was never treated any differently.”

After moving to the UK she did a stint working for Raymond Blanc at Le Petit Blanc in Birmingham. But a move to London had her “harassing Peter (Gordon) for about six months going ‘can I get a job’”. He finally relented, and as Brown puts it “it changed my life”. She describes Gordon as a powerful persona – both in his skill and his compassion. “Yes, kitchens are stressful, yes, they’re high energy and yes, they take a certain soul, but that was me down to a tee,” she says. “He was very kind in his nature and always very communicative, and he taught us really well. His mind for fusion, the way it worked was just a joy to live and work next to for a period of time.”

View on Instagram

The hard London water ended up giving Brown skin complaints, something that pushed her to transition out of the kitchen and onto the floor. This experience encouraged her towards studying wine and boosting her knowledge on the topic – both as part of her job and as a way of establishing a hospitality career outside of kitchens, especially because, as Brown says “my husband a the time was a chef, and I was like 'Well, he’s way better than me, so I’m going to go and study wine.'”

One thing quickly led to another and Brown decided to branch out on her own to set up Specialist Cellars. “The whole ethos and philosophy was about connecting the UK and consumers in the UK with the beautiful wines that we make back home, and the ones that weren’t necessarily available in supermarkets,” Brown tells me. “Supermarket wines are typically very generic, very commercially driven. The smaller, more family oriented producers didn’t have the capacity to produce on that scale. So it was about becoming a conduit, I guess, for the vineyard and the families and the producers that I’d grown close to after working with Peter Gordon and creating a space or a voice for them in the UK.” The business was so successful that they decided to branch out into more New World wines, showcasing bottles from Australia, South Africa and California alongside their initial offering from New Zealand.

What I love about New Zealand wine is it has attitude, sass and personality

Speaking to Brown about New Zealand wines is a joy, and she visibly brightens when I ask her about her favourite drops from the country. As a Kiwi myself, we bonded over a nostalgia for home and the ways in which bottles from NZ can help you feel a little closer, even when you’re half a world away. “I've learned more about New Zealand being away,” Brown tells me. “First and foremost, what I love about it, and what I've learned about New Zealand wine over the last 20 years, is it has attitude, sass and personality. The reason it has those three things is because we're completely surrounded by water. So our proximity to water makes all the difference to how our wines taste, and behave.”

View on Instagram

She talks about how young the industry in New Zealand is, and tells me that the average vine life in the country is around 15 or 20 years because of this (for reference, vines can only really start to produce wine after about four years). But it’s when she touches on the people in this industry that I really get a feel for that Kiwi attitude we both know and love. “Our industry has this amazing sense of solidarity and friendship and kindness that the old world doesn't have,” says Brown. “So we share information, we share research, we share resources and machinery and insight and intelligence. And most importantly, they're all friends. Right? You can't say that about Grand Cru vineyards in France, they don't fucking talk to each other. There's a fence and you do not cross it, you do not share information, you protect your land and your business with all your might. We have the opposite attitude in New Zealand.”

This, according to Brown, has had a large hand in growing what is, comparatively, an enormously young wine growing industry. No longer is the country simply famed for sauvignon blanc from Marlborough – although Brown admits the varietal is having something of a renaissance in her list of favourites. Now you’re just as likely to get a chardonnay that, in Brown’s words, “compete with Grand Cru Burgundies”.

In this industry you end up becoming a mother, a counsellor, an auntie, a friend, a colleague and a boss

But the business isn’t just about wine – Brown is juggling three separate entities alongside her 11-year-old daughter. “First and foremost, I’m a mother,” she tells me. “I have an 11 year old daughter, so ultimately, that is my priority. But as we know, in the hospitality industry – particularly as I'm trying to run three businesses at the moment within our hospitality group – it does become challenging with all the balls you have to juggle and all the hats that you have to wear. I think there are about 35 of us now across all of the businesses. You end up becoming a mother, a counsellor, an auntie, a friend, a colleague, a boss. So, which hat do you use? At which time?”

When we touch on being a woman in the industry, Brown says that she’s never faced any negative experiences, but that she recognises she’s been lucky to be surrounded by supportive male coworkers and that not everyone is like that. When I ask what it means to her to be a woman in hospitality, she says she feels empowered. “You know, there's a sense of empowerment to say that, yes, we can do it. And we are capable of doing it. We have the capacity, and we have the tools to be able to manage that as well as being parents and navigating everything else in the world.”

Loading