Taking inspiration from the land and sea, New Zealand chef Monique Fiso is known for firing up Māori and Polynesian cuisine with innovative kai rarely seen on most restaurant menus.
Growing up in Porirua, she says her upbringing was very much a Pacific Island one, surrounded by the foods, culture and languages of the islands.
“My parents, they were working a lot, so we would often go to grandma’s house and stay there the night. Grandma’s a very no-nonsense Samoan grandma so you weren't just going to sit around and watch cartoons on Sunday morning. Sunday after church would be when everyone would come over, all the cousins, and Samoan families are notoriously large… so you’re catering to 50 people.”
From age 4 or 5, Fiso would get up early on a Sunday to help her grandma peel the taro, cut the garlic and onions.
If they weren’t at their Samoan grandma’s house they would be at their other grandma’s house, who was very English, says Fiso.
“She’s from Dunedin so we’d go there, and we’d have probably a roast lamb with potatoes so there’s these two very different food worlds that I was growing up in where one was very traditional, very British and one that was Samoan but there was always inklings of other things going on.”
Fiso was always a hungry kid.
Passionate about food, Fiso wanted to become a chef and focused on traditional French techniques.
She moved to New York and found herself adapting these techniques in fusion cuisine.
Fiso worked as a sous chef alongside Chef Matt Lambert at The Musket Room in New York, a restaurant based on New Zealand cuisine, and one which quickly earned itself a Michelin Star.
However, the American chefs she worked with had no idea what New Zealand cuisine was or what ingredients to use – the gap became glaringly obvious, she says.
“That’s when I started to think about it much more because the bases of the menu were Aotearoa and New Zealand ingredients.”
New Zealand ingredients she was interested in using in New York weren’t able to be shipped over because there weren’t suppliers.
On a trip back home, featuring a brief road trip around the South Island, she and a friend decided to seek out a restaurant serving New Zealand cuisine – they couldn’t find one.
“Aside from a bowl of mussels here, or a few bits and pieces there, there was nothing that was, you walked in and you went: ‘oh, this is New Zealand, this is the cuisine, the décor, the style of service, the whole package was centred around Aotearoa’.”
In 2016, Fiso returned to our shores after racking up seven years in some of New York’s top kitchens.
It was time for her to really delve into the food from her Māori heritage and she decided to open a pop-up.
Those hāngī pop-ups took off.
It was a way for her to test the market.
“I would 100 percent recommend people, before they open a restaurant, to definitely test it as a pop-up first.”
By the time she opened Wellington restaurant Hiakai, Fiso had a very clear idea about what she wanted to do and how to do it.
“Somethings I think, oh it wasn’t that hard, but people tend to forget what pain feels like.”
Research is an important aspect of the way dishes are created.
“If you’re going to do a concept like this, you need to do your homework and make sure that you’re doing things correctly.”
Lately, Fiso has been playing around with Manano bark and Tawa bark, dehydrating it and turning it into a spice blend.
Among other ingredients she uses Kiakia blossoms, from the Kiakia flax, leaving them to ferment for months before they turn highlighter pink and smell like candy.
“That was one that was quite a revelation to learn.”
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