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Food for thought

17 November 2023

Having lived in the North Island for seven years, Alby Hailes, winner of television reality show The Great Kiwi Bake Off and author of new cookbook Good Vibes, is enjoying being back in Dunedin and taking it easier for a change.
Words Rebecca Fox | Photos Aaron McLean

Alby Hailes knows better than most how important it is to look after yourself.

Not just because he is a doctor and has been working in the field of mental health, but because he too nearly fell into the burnout trap.

A doer by nature, Alby thrives on being busy, and was working 60-hour-plus weeks as a psychiatry registrar while writing and photographing a cookbook in his “spare time” when he noticed some physical health problems.

“Last year was very hectic.”

He went to a general practitioner, something he had not done in eight years, who suggested burnout and stress were contributing to his problems.

“I took two weeks off to re-evaluate.”

It led to some important reflection on the direction his life was going. He had spent six years at medical school at the University of Otago and worked as a doctor for four years while also taking part in The Great Kiwi Bake Off in 2021.

“I’d done all that without taking a significant step back and when you throw everything else in, it’s not that sustainable.”

He and his partner quit their jobs, decided to sell their house in Whangarei and move south again as his partner wanted to study public health in Dunedin.

“My parents live out in Waitati so it’s nice to be close to them for a little bit.”

Alby decided it was time to take things a bit easy for a while. The couple have moved into the central city and instead of taking a permanent job, he has been working as a locum for one week a month around the country.

“It’s the first time I’ve lived almost in the city centre where you can walk to everywhere and it’s cool that it’s just a five-minute walk and you’re in the Octagon.”

That has given him plenty of time to focus on his new cookbook and cake order business.

“I like being very busy and I miss that. I’m using this year as an opportunity to reassess my goals for myself and I think I’ll launch back into things. It’s about finding the balance and I think I have a better idea about how I can do that in the future.”

He hopes to return to psychiatry and finish his qualification as he believes there is a lot to do in the mental health and food area, especially in the areas of food security and the impact of nutrition on mental health.

“I think if I’m to return to doctoring full-time now, while also doing some of this on the side, I’d have better boundaries. Working in the mental health space is quite challenging and you really take home with you a lot of what is going on. I was starting to become quite cynical about the world and it was bringing down how I was feeling about myself as well.

“So understanding why that was happening and how I can approach things in a different way has been really useful to do in this time.”
Alby has been working on his cookbook for years as he slowly built up a range of recipes. After winning Bake Off – something he entered to get him out of his comfort zone – he sent off an email to all the publishers he could think of with a proposal for a “fully realised” cookbook.

He was riding high on adrenaline from the high-intensity three-week TV shoot and while he went straight back to his day job after his win, he knew he wanted to do more in food.

“I’ve always been very passionate about food.”

Growing up with a mum who was an “amazing” cook and a dad “who wasn’t too bad either”, he always loved flicking through cookbooks. At university, he self-published Scarfie Kitchen, which he describes as a “very different beast”.

“There is something really beautiful about a book – there is no replacement for it. It’s not the same scrolling the internet, you’re tangibly holding a cookbook and getting butter all over it.”

It has always been his goal to walk into a bookshop and see a book of his on the shelves.

“To see something you’ve made, that others can enjoy and it can be part of their kitchen and family. I think that’s something to be proud of .”

Alby admits to being a messy cook – just think back to his benches on Bake Off, he says.

“I always had the messiest of aprons. Now since moving here we have a very small kitchen compared to the past so it necessitates being a bit tidier.”

An important part of his ethos around food, which he hopes comes through in the book, is the importance of having a positive relationship with food.

“I’m very anti a lot of these restrictive fad diets that have come through in the past five or 10 years which can result in a really negative relationship between your mind, your body and the food you are eating.”

While there are good reasons to change a person’s diet, such as reducing gluten intake if you have coeliac disease or turning to plant-based diets due to environmental concerns, he believes the ideal way of eating is when people can connect to the whenua where their food comes from, if possible, cooking your own food and to do it with others.

“Food is so powerful at creating human connection – every celebration or sadness, food is part of that and has been through history. [It’s] part of a healthy life, especially in our work-centric society. It’s so important to connect with people through food and having fun in the kitchen, challenging yourself to have more fun with flavours and thinking about the personal benefits through the cooking process can be a very mindful thing.

“The kinetic feeling of kneading dough or tuning in to the smells and tastes. There is a lot to be gained from food. “

Hence the title of his book – Good Vibes – with the tagline “eat well with feel good flavours”. It’s broken up into chapters such as energise, delight, thrive, comfort and connect.

“It’s a combination of globally inspired ingredients. There is a lot of fusion food to push people to try different food and flavours, but in an accessible way, with positivity.

“There is a sprinkle of mental health in there, while at the core it’s a cookbook that people can enjoy with their friends and whānau.”

The recipes are all ones he has made many times for himself or for others. They are recipes that might have come together from throwing a few things together in the kitchen to “see what happens”, to others where he has pored over cookbooks from his favourite food writers to see how they approached a dish and then put his own spin on it using different flavours and techniques.

“Food is such a big part of our history, a completely original concept or recipe is pretty hard to come by. There are some pretty amazing things being done in the cheffing world but when you are making more home-cooked food it still has to have a degree of familiarity.

“That’s what my recipes try to do – something that is still familiar but is something different. Even something as basic as the lasagne recipe, where it’s blitzing beetroot into the bechamel sauce, which makes it super yummy but is something you might not think of doing. “

Overall he enjoyed the process of publishing the book and believes it represents him “relatively” well. He is planning a publicity tour around the country after its release and a launch party in Dunedin.

“It’s slightly left-field from the typical cookbook you see in New Zealand and the cover is different. I’m excited to see how it goes and how New Zealanders respond to it.”

With the cookbook in production, Alby has been working on his cake business when not working as a locum. He had originally thought he would start a food business but couldn’t find the right fit and location. Instead he decided to make cakes to order from his home kitchen.

“It allows me the flexibility to still go off and do doctoring work and food writing.”

When people order a cake they can also choose an organisation for another cake to be donated at no cost.

“There’s a bit of sharing the love with it, which is always good.”

Cake is something you can be very creative with on the decorating side but also in the flavours, he says.
“People will see that in the ‘Delight’, or dessert, section of my book too. There isn’t an ordinary plain chocolate cake in there. I think the exciting thing about cooking is figuring out how you can incorporate savoury flavours into sweet and vice versa, especially with herbs and spices.

“The opportunity to be creative with food is endless and at the end of the day you get to share the deliciousness with others.”

Click here to read this story in our digital issue of 03.

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