With an award-winning, hard to get into restaurant in Wellington, and now an award-winning book, Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine, Monique Fiso has already conquered some big food mountains. Here she is telling Dale about her rise in the food world.
Talofa, Monique. Shall we start with you telling us a bit about your background?
Well, I’m Monique Tumema Fiso. I’m half Sāmoan, quarter Māori, quarter Pākehā. My mum, Serena Hurunui, was born in Patea, and that’s where the Māori side (Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Ruanui) comes from.
I grew up in Porirua. It was a very Polynesian upbringing — Sunday lunches with Nan at her house with taro and chop suey and that sort of thing.
And it wasn’t until later in life that I started seeking out more about my Māori heritage, because it wasn’t really on the radar when we were younger.
And your middle name?
Tumema is my aunty’s name — my dad’s sister. I like it because Monique doesn’t sound Māori or Sāmoan — it’s French.
Can you tell us about your dad and how your whānau from Sāmoa came to live in Porirua?
Dad, Siuai Fiso, is Kiwi born and bred. Nan (Tepora) and Grandad (Tasi) came over in the ‘50s. Like a lot of Sāmoan families, they were looking for work and new opportunities. They settled in Cannons Creek, Porirua.
A lot of our extended family were there, too, and Nan still lives there. I consider Porirua as where I’m from, as opposed to Wellington City. I’m definitely a Porirua girl.
Cannons Creek has a reputation as being the rough side of town, but those who live there see it quite differently, don’t they?
Totally. I totally see it differently. I had so much fun growing up there in the ‘80s and ‘90s, because there was a sense of community that you don’t get in some of the other suburbs in Wellington or Auckland.
We’d play outside until the sun went down, and everyone knew everyone. You could walk along the street and grab all the kids from the other houses and find a park and play “Go Home, Stay Home”. So much fun.
You’re not uncomfortable or intimidated by the Mongrel Mob then?
They had their presence, and they still do. But, no, not really.
As a mixed-race kid, sometimes you can cop some flak from schoolmates because you’re not seen as fully one or the other, Pasifika or Māori. Were you ever made to feel uncomfortable about that?
A little bit. Mainly in high school, in Wellington City. Mum and Dad were working in the city, and the commute was starting to get to them. So they decided to buy a house in the city, and we found ourselves going from Cannons Creek to the affluent suburb of Northland. And you’re suddenly very aware you’re a minority.
I’m going to Northland Primary School, looking around and realising that, of all the kids in the school, there’s only 10 coloured faces — and, of those, four are my siblings.
That was when I started to notice cultural differences, particularly when it came to food. The whole vibe was quite different. I got used to it, accepted that this is where we go to school now, and this is life.
Then, when I was high school, some of the kids I grew up with in Porirua were visiting there, and they were like: “I remember you from PIC church.” I was like: “Yeah, I remember you, too.” And they were like: “Oh, geez, you turned into a bit of Pālagi though.”
It was quite confronting. I’d say: “Oh, I still view myself as brown. Don’t you view me as brown? What’s happened?” It was that whole identity thing and trying to figure out who you are, especially when you’re ‘afakasi.
You mentioned taro and chop suey. I live in Ōtāhuhu, so taro is going out the door flat out everywhere I look. It’s a real staple of Pasifika life. Do you still like it?
I still like it. In fact, if anything, I feel bad that I didn’t appreciate it more as a kid because it’s expensive. I used to complain to Nan about some of the food, especially when we were going to school in the city and I wanted to fit in. You know: “All the other kids are eating potatoes and stuff. Why don’t we have potatoes?”
You started in a kitchen when you were just a young teen. Our people are always good at manaakitanga, and food is the way to the heart, isn’t it? Tell us about your decision to go into the food industry.
I definitely like the work. I’m somebody who needs to be working with my hands. I like to be moving around — and I struggle to sit still. Looking back, working with food made a lot of sense.
It was something I always gravitated towards and was always curious about. It consumed a lot of my thoughts as a kid, more than I think is normal. Not just in the sense of “I’m hungry,” but in the sense of: “Why is this crispy? How can I cook this item outside?” Just odd thoughts I’d constantly have. So it made sense that I eventually became a chef.
I don’t think they can ever prepare you for how physical and how hard the job is, especially when you start working in high-end, high-achieving kitchens. I think everyone is trying to make kitchens have a better work–life balance.
My partner, Katie Monteith, who is also the general manager of HIAKAI, has been instrumental in implementing better work-life balance here. It’s hard to imagine HIAKAI before Katie came on board — she’s really changed the way we operate at every level.
It’s like: “We understand that working at night is difficult and you miss out on a lot of things, but how can we make it so that you’re not just working, working, working, cooking, cooking, cooking, then completely burning out?”
What feeling do you get when you see somebody enjoy something you’ve prepared? Is it a manaakitanga feeling that the person you’ve cooked for is enjoying what you’ve done for them?
Yeah, no matter what accolades we’ve achieved as a team, or I’ve achieved individually, at the end of the day that feedback is what keeps me going. I’m on the pans every night that we’re open, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day of things. We’ve got to get this prepped, we’ve got to do this and that, yadda yadda yadda.
When you’re having a tough day, just getting that feedback — “Hey, table 7 really loved this”, or you hear someone go: “Oh, that was delicious, that was fantastic” — that stuff does keep me going.
I know that you studied in New Zealand before going across to New York, but I imagine you’ve had all sorts of influences as a young cook.
I used to read a lot of autobiographies. Gordon Ramsay, Michael White, Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller. I’d just read, read, read. In terms of a true mentor, I’d say Martin Bosley who had his restaurant at the Port Nicholson Yacht Club in Wellington, which won restaurant of the year around 2007.
I was working for him, and it was an older kitchen in terms of the ages of the chefs — a mature kitchen, which I’ve never experienced again. The head chef was Steve Mahoney, who’d been working for Martin for over a decade at that point, and there was another really talented chef, Amy Gillies, who’s gone on to open Salty Pidgin in Wellington, and two or three others.
They were in their late 20s, early 30s — except me in my late teens, early 20s. I was so lucky to be in this kitchen that not only had Martin Bosley, who was an amazing mentor, but also had a mature team who were able to teach me a lot of things.
That set me up well for when I went to New York, because I’d had these people investing their time into me for two years and teaching me the best way to do things. Right place, right time for that kitchen. It was quite pivotal for me.
You didn’t go half measure, did you? You went straight to the Big Apple and worked in some high-end, Michelin-star restaurants under some superstars of kai. What would you say about that experience?
I think you have to be young and have that youthful feeling of being invincible and thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”
There’s a part of me now that’s like: “How did I even survive that long in that city, considering how green I was?”
And that wasn’t just with cooking, because I was relatively new to the industry, but also I hadn’t even googled what the weather was going to be like when I landed. This was before smartphones, and I didn’t know where anything was.
I was so underprepared for moving to a city like that, but I would recommend it to young chefs. Even though the New Zealand food scene has moved forward quite a bit over the past decade, I still think any young Kiwi chef who wants to progress needs to go overseas and get a few years in a city like New York or Melbourne or London.
You get to work on projects that are on a much larger scale than you would in a city like Wellington, where there isn’t the population.
Did it change my attitude towards kai? Absolutely. It showed me how to prepare things, how to organise myself, learning and expanding the repertoire. And also how to work with others, especially when you’re working in teams where there are a lot of different cultures and you all need to work for the common good.
I guess there wouldn’t have been too many Pasifika people there. So how did you protect yourself from some of the temptations the industry has? We know that drug and alcohol abuse is common in the food industry, but how did you protect yourself regarding the work–life balance? Are those issues as real as we’re led to believe?
They are very, very real, which is one of the reasons the industry’s facing a labour shortage at the moment. The industry has allowed this to go on for a long time and just looked the other way. I was lucky that I had enough self-awareness to know when I needed to take a break or step back.
But it’s hard, because this industry, as much as I love it, can make you feel isolated. You’re working opposite hours to the rest of your friends. Things aren’t open when you finish work, and that can be hard on people.
There’s a perception of Māori kai that it’s bland. How have you tried to change that perception?
Our focus at HIAKAI is on the ingredients and how we utilise them, and that’s where having international experience and working in different kitchens with a wide variety of ingredients starts to come into play.
Take tarota, for instance. It’s got an interesting aroma and a zesty, tangy flavour to it, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to put the leaves on anything because it’s fibrous and not that pleasant to eat.
When you come across an ingredient like that, where you want to extract the flavour, you need to break down the leaf. You could try blanching it, but it might not break it down enough.
Or, if you want to go to a more extreme level, you hit it with nitrogen and shatter it. Then, with that frozen powder that you’ve created by tipping liquid nitrogen on the tarota leaves, you can then infuse that into an oil or a sorbet base.
If you worked in some of those high-end kitchens, you’ve been trained in how to use dry ice or liquid nitrogen or centrifuges, and you know a little bit more about how to get flavour out of things.
Do you feel a need to mentor others as others have mentored you?
It’s definitely been something that I’m starting to grow into. I used to be one of those people who thought: “I can do it myself. I don’t need you. You’re not doing this fast enough, etcetera.”
I’ve worked in kitchens like that, and it’s not pleasant. It’s a much nicer culture in the kitchen when it’s nurturing as opposed to someone cracking a whip. At the moment, my kitchen is probably the nicest environment I’ve worked in for a long time. It’s more like mentor and student as opposed to boss and junior chef.
Do you have a band of young Māori and Polynesian chefs?
No. I wish we did. Right now, the kitchen is Kiwi, which has been a big shift from before Covid when there were a lot more internationals, but we don’t have any Māori or Pacific chefs at the moment. But we do at the front of house, which is awesome. I’ve definitely got my eye out for up-and-coming talent.
Congratulations on the successs of your pukapuka Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine and the way it’s been received. What was the biggest challenge for you in writing the book. And how did you feel that it was so well received and an award-winning effort?
I’m stoked about all the accolades. I don’t think people realise how much work goes into a book like this. We had to gather and shoot all the ingredients, research and write about all of them, and then there’s the recipes. And, all up, that took two years on top of running the restaurant.
It’s not like you’re just writing down your scone and muffin recipes. It’s hours upon hours upon hours for each dish that you’re seeing in a cookbook.
I definitely have a different view on things after writing a book — and great respect for people who have written multiple books.
When people are cooking high-end kai, on their time off they quite enjoy simple stuff. What is your go-to at home? Cheese and onion toasted sandwiches?
It’s funny you say that, coz toasted sandwiches are often what Katie, my partner, and I eat at home. This week I made mac and cheese for dinner. It’s odd because we spend so long making fiddly food with tweezers and what-not, putting it together beautifully — and then at home I love eating a bowl of rice with some vegetables and a bit of chicken. That’s me. I’m good with that.
I know you’re busy and your time is taken up with your mahi. But how do you recharge the batteries? How do you keep your head in a good space?
Katie and I like to do a bit of foraging, just to get outside and have some fresh air. And I like spending time with my family, especially the younger ones.
My siblings have a lot of kids, and that definitely recharges me. It’s always funny talking to them, because they refer to my work as “that chef thing.” Or they ‘ll ask me about my “chef costume”. Kids bring you down a level.
And your beautiful nana is nearly 90. Do you go around to her place and eat taro with her every now and again?
I so need to. I called her the other day, and she was giving me a bit of stick, so I think I need to make the most of Nana’s kai.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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