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‘I've always been very proud of Wellington, and the creatives that have come from here.’

Gems in this
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Gems in
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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

Monique Fiso is an Aotearoa New Zealand-born chef with a strong sense of manaakitanga (hospitality), whose desire to celebrate and share her culture is the driving force behind her inventive cooking.

While living in the cultural melting pot of New York, Monique sharpened her culinary chops over seven years in Michelin-starred kitchens, before returning to her home of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) to reconnect with her culture. The result is HIAKAI — a restaurant she founded and named after the Māori word for hungry, and a tribute to her Māori and Samoan roots. Monique’s talent has won international acclaim, with Time Magazine and Forbes naming her restaurant as one of the best places to eat in the world in 2020. Curiosity permeates everything that Monique does — when she’s not in the kitchen, she’s out foraging the Wellington surrounds for new ingredients to add to a menu inspired by the land. For the Aotearoa Country Special, we chatted to Monique about her Polynesian inspiration, her appreciation for New Zealand’s native bounty, and some of her favorite Travel Gems to explore while in Wellington.

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On growing up in Wellington and your Polynesian roots

I grew up surrounded by my Polynesian roots, because pretty much everyone living there came over from Samoa back in the day. Porirua is about 15 minutes outside of the Wellington CBD, and is predominantly Māori, Polynesian. It was quite a fun place to grow up. At about age 18, my family moved into Wellington, which has its own vibe entirely. We went from being in a predominantly Polynesian community to being maybe the only Polynesian family in the whole suburb. It was a bit of a culture shock, and that was when I realized that our family was a little different. Suddenly I was more aware of my heritage.

On moving to New York

After I finished culinary school, I began working in Wellington with Martin Bosley, who was amazing. I'd set some very lofty goals for myself and wanted to progress in the kitchen and learn as much as I could. The attraction to New York was wanting to be somewhere I would be pushed. The fast pace of the city appealed to me and there were of course Michelin-starred restaurants.

On New York through the eyes of a chef

The wonderful thing about New York is the fact that there are so many nationalities living in a compact space. New York City itself is, for the 8 million people living there, actually quite small. For a chef, it’s amazing because you can try so many different cuisines so close together. It really opens your eyes to different flavors, different techniques, different cultures — I wouldn’t have been able to get that experience in Wellington. I don’t even think Auckland would come close to exposing you to all those different ways of approaching food. It’s important when you’re a young chef because there’s a tendency to get cocky really quickly in a kitchen. When you’re in a city like New York, and you’re young and you’re hungry, it’s a good reminder that you don’t know everything. Even when you think you do, you can go two blocks to another restaurant and realize you know nothing about other cuisines. There’s always more to learn.

On Māori and Polynesian cuisine

What I found quite odd, especially after spending a lot of time overseas and opening myself up to the world, was that when I came home, I couldn't find anywhere that was doing Māori or Polynesian cuisine. There was maybe a splash of people using traditional techniques, but in predominantly French-style restaurants. It really begged the question of why nobody had opened a restaurant in Aotearoa that focused on indigenous ingredients and techniques, with a little Polynesian flair. It is such a big part of our history.

After returning from time spent in New York's top kitchens, Monique Fiso set to work on creating a pop-up that celebrated New Zealand's native ingredients and deployed the techniques and traditions of her Māori and Samoan roots. Gaining overwhelming support, in 2016 the pop-up then morphed into 30-seat restaurant HIAKAI. Top image by Sulthan Auliya, second row images by Amber-Jayne Bain, third and bottom row images by Mickey Ross.

On opening HIAKAI

There were a lot of nerves and fear when I first decided to take the plunge. I started out by doing pop-ups. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll do a couple of pop-ups and see if anyone's interested. If not, then it was an interesting experiment’. So I went online, put some feelers out there and said, ‘I'm selling tickets to this pop-up. It's going to focus on Māori and Polynesian cuisine’. I thought, I've got 40 tickets for sale, if I sell half, I'll consider that a success. The first pop-up sold out within two hours. It definitely has gone beyond what I could have ever hoped for. From those humble pop-ups to what HIAKAI has achieved now — which is a best-selling and multi-award-winning book, as well as a highly accoladed restaurant  — i'ts quite incredible. Sometimes I do have to stop and appreciate how much we’ve done in five years. It’s kind of phenomenal.

On your advice to young chefs

Before you open a restaurant, test your ideas, go and do some pop-ups. It will tell you a lot about what you need to learn and figure out, and what your weaknesses are as a potential business owner. It will also tell you what the feelings are in the market, and you can do that without actually having a lease over your head or any real liability. Then you can refine your idea.

'What 'manaakitanga' means to me is hospitality in the sense of kindness and empathy and treating others as family. 'Manaakitanga' is almost a way of being.'

On what ‘manaakitanga’ means to you

Manaakitanga translates simply as hospitality. It's something we discuss a lot at HIAKAI. But what manaakitanga means to me is hospitality in the sense of kindness and empathy towards others, and being welcoming and treating others as family. And that’s not just for guests, but also for staff. Manaakitanga is almost a way of being. It’s something that I strive towards as a person — to be somebody who is welcoming, empathetic and kind. It’s multi-layered. If you ask another person what manaakitanga means, you'd probably get a different response.

On what makes New Zealand so special

You can wake up in the morning and head for a walk along the waterfront if it’s a sunny day, have some brunch, go to the beach or the Southern Park, and then head somewhere else to see a friend. It's very easy and accessible. I realized I ached for that lifestyle while in New York. When I returned home to New Zealand at the end of 2015, I took a seasonal job at a fly-fishing lodge, of all places. Don't ask me if I know how to fly fish — I still don’t. I was just there for a couple of months as a private chef for the guests that came through. It was summertime on the river, there was a beach, and outdoor activities and everything just had a chilled vibe. It was at this moment that I realised that, yes, this is what I've been missing. This is why home is so great.

In 2020, Monique and her team published the book 'Hiakai' to share their modern take on Māori cuisine with the world. Inside you'll find tales on tradition, ingredients and culture, plus recipes to recreate some of HIAKAI's top dishes. Top image by Mickey Ross, left image on second row courtesy of Monique Fiso, remaining images by Amber-Jayne Bain.

On the soundscape of home

It's so quiet. I actually struggled with that the first week I was back. My ears were ringing at night because I was used to sirens and noise outside my New York apartment. But all I could hear was the wildlife, and the birds singing. Sometimes you don't appreciate things until you've been without them for a long time. Then, you come back and think ‘Wow, this is cool, we have all these birds’. It sounds silly, but it was exactly what I needed.

On your relationship with Wellington

It’s complicated. I love Wellington. I’m Wellington born-and-bred, and I've always been very proud of my city, and the creatives that have come from here, including Peter Jackson, Taika Waititi and the list goes on. It's so compact and easy to get around — if you're new to the city, you don't need a car, because you can literally walk most places or catch a bus and be across the other side of town pretty quickly. But Wellington is changing. Like a lot of cities that are growing, it's definitely becoming a lot harder for young families and creatives to stay in the city. It’s suffering from growing pains. Creativity has put Wellington on the map, but at the same time, these creatives are now having a hard time affording life here.

‘It’s during walks in Wellington that we do our best planning and menu development. We might see onion weed growing or 'kawakawa' berries popping through. The landscape here inspires the menu.’

On New Zealand’s inspiring natural environment

My partner Katie and I, we like to spend our days off going for bush walks, foraging and just being outdoors. Katie's the General Manager of HIAKAI, so day-to-day we work hectically to get our different parts of the business rolling. So, on our days off we like to get a bit of space from people. It’s during those walks that we probably do our best planning and menu development. We might see onion weed growing or kawakawa berries popping through; nasturtium might be blooming. Or we'll see flowers coming out and start thinking about making it into a cordial for the beverage menu, or turn it into a sorbet for the summer menu. From there we might be inspired to say we’re adding this thing to the menu, or preserving this item in brine or in a syrup to use on the next menu. The landscape inspires the menu through the walks we take and just seeing what's out there.

On where you’d take a friend who’s visiting for the day

I love to walk along the waterfront and through Mount Victoria, so I’d start the day with a walk then we’d grab some brunch. There are a couple of places I like going; Loretta on Cuba Street, they always do a solid brunch. Dragons does yum cha, if you want to have a slightly different take on brunch. It’s quite close to the waterfront too, so you can go for a walk, pop in for some yum cha, then go for another walk. It’s a nice way to work off the yum cha. If it’s a Sunday and the Waterfront Markets next to Te Papa [The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa] are on, I'd pop in there, have a peruse, and grab some food from the food trucks. From here, I’d go to Te Whare Toi, our City Gallery, and see what exhibitions are on. It’s always a lot of fun. Then I’d do a bit of shopping. Unity Books is a great bookstore, with a lot of really interesting titles from independent publishers as well as larger publishers. They’re local and they’re really into what they do.

Just outside of Wellington in the Wairarapa, are innovative winemakers. Two labels that Monique currently serves at HIAKAI, and recommends visiting while in town, are Huntress Wines (pictured middle, by Claire Edwards of Tora Collective) and Poppies (pictured bottom, courtesy Poppies). Top image by Adana Hulett.

On your top places to eat in Wellington

There’s a place called Bar Mason that I really love, and it’s doing some cool tapas-style food and a lot of different natural wines. It's a good place to try some things that you wouldn't normally see on a menu or you wouldn't normally go for. Rasa is a Wellington institution and does the most delicious dosa. It's one of those places I like to go after work on a Tuesday if I can find the time. Ortega Fish Shack has been going for a long time, with good food and great service, and a really extensive and interesting wine list. They have been open for probably close to 20 years now, run by the Limacher family who are really good at what they do — you don't last that long without being bang-on professionals. Mark Limacher, the owner and chef, was actually Ben Shewry from Attica’s mentor back in the day. The family has got long, deep roots in hospitality, and it shows in the level of service.

On your top places to enjoy a drink in Wellington

If you're a beer drinker, or you're just looking for something low-key, Double Vision Brewery out in Miramar has a pizza food truck that parks around the back, so you can get great pizza and beer. They also usually have a live band playing on a Sunday — quite fun. The Malthouse on Courtenay Place — they have a really good selection of beers and gins, so that's a great place to grab a beer and chill out.

'There isn't a lot of spare land to grow wine around Wellington, but right over the hill in Martinborough in the Wairarapa, there are a few people doing some pretty cool stuff.'

On your favorite wine around Wellington

There isn't a lot of spare land to grow wine around Wellington, but right over the hill in Martinborough in the Wairarapa, there are a few people doing some pretty cool stuff. There's two vineyards in particular that are ranking as high favorites for me. One is Huntress Wines, which is run by Jannine Rickards, and she is this foraging-hunting force of nature. She’s a very well-respected winemaker who has branched off and started her own line of wines, with very interesting blends  — got a couple on the menu at the moment. There’s another place called Poppies, and they are also making some really delicious wines. If you do have a chance, head for lunch and get their lunch platter with matching wines, which has little bits and pieces they’ve cooked, like pork belly, nuts, marinated olives and it’s all delicious.

On a window or an aisle seat

I prefer the window because I like to be in my own little space. I put my headphones on and stare out the window or close the blinds and sleep. So, I'm definitely a window person.

On Wellington in one word.

Character. 


You need a lot to live here. And a lot of different characters make up the population. We also seem to be obsessed with character homes in Wellington.

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Monique

FISO

‘I've always been very proud of Wellington, and the creatives that have come from here.’