How chef Monique Fiso is making Maori cuisine a fine-dining treat

by Kate Richards / 13 July, 2017
Photography by Paul McCredie

Chef Monique Fiso heads into Kaitoke Regional Park, north of Upper Hutt in Wellington, to forage for ingredients

Monique Fiso is an accomplished chef who has worked at some of the world’s best restaurants. Now she’s showcasing under-appreciated native ingredients back home.

Monique Fiso is shy at first, but slowly, slowly comes out of her shell. It takes about a day’s worth of gentle coaxing for her to warm up – roughly the same amount of time it takes to cook a traditional Māori meal.

This slow and steady approach belies Fiso’s rapid, decade-long rise in the food industry. Since completing a culinary arts diploma at WelTec and starting out in Wellington chef Martin Bosley’s kitchen, she’s spent much of her time cooking (often for a pittance) in fine-dining and Michelin-starred restaurants both here and abroad. Most recently, she’s been celebrating her Samoan-Māori heritage, and the Māori cuisine she’s now deeply passionate about, in the form of Hiakai, a pop-up restaurant held in tents that’s been touring New Zealand. At these dinners, Fiso makes simple things – like traditional steamed pudding, butter, and mushroom soup – seem special, by presenting them in unimaginable ways.

Fiso is used to spending time alone, often on solo foraging missions for native ingredients to use in her Hiakai hāngī dinners. It’s quite a change from the busy kitchens she elbowed her way into: she got a job with Martin Bosley by showing up at his back door one day and simply asking for one. “Often people don’t like work experience kids because they can be more trouble than they’re worth,” she explains. They obviously liked her though, because after only a week she’d clocked the 50 hours needed to complete her WelTec internship and was offered a permanent position.

Fiso trims a karamū branch for its berries; the leaves can also be used to make a tea. Above right Fiso taking notes on her foraging expedition.

Fiso spent two years working for Bosley, until one day she was sitting on the couch in her “crappy, mouldy flat in Johnsonville” and, on a whim, booked tickets to New York. All she knew was there were many great restaurants there, and she was desperate for some Michelin star experience.

It seems she surprised herself with this willingness to travel. “It was 31 May, 2009 when I left,” she remembers. “The decision didn’t hit me until I’d jumped on the first leg of the flight. I’d literally sold everything I owned and I had nothing, and I’m moving somewhere where I don’t know anyone in the hope that someone in a Michelin-starred restaurant will give me a job. I remember crying.  I just sat down in my seat and burst into tears.”

She needn’t have worried. After four hours of sweaty sleep in a local backpackers, Fiso headed out to Brad Farmerie’s Michelin-starred restaurant, the now-closed Public, to once again knock on the back door and ask for a job. One surly meeting with Farmerie – “he just looked me up and down and asked ‘who are you?’” – and 12 hours of unpaid work later, she was hired.

Fiso spent three years at Public – becoming sous chef after just six months – before joining double Michelin star holder and Top Chef Masters competitor, Missy Robbins, at A Voce. It’d been a fairly quick road to success, and Fiso admits that by this time she was in need of a kick. “I was a 21-year-old airhead,” she says. Robbins’ strict restaurant helped Fiso refine her timings, palate and knife skills in ways she never thought possible in an Italian kitchen. “I thought pasta was so easy!” she laughs. Making everything in the restaurant by hand, however, eventually left her completely burnt out.

A jaded Fiso left New York to take a break, first travelling home to renew her visa and then to the Hamptons. She spent her days there slinging steaks for celebrities and “drinking from the time I got up until the time I went to sleep”. In a weird headspace and about to quit cooking forever, one afternoon Fiso received a surprise call from her New Zealand friend (and ex-sous chef at Public), Matt Lambert. He was about to open a restaurant and wanted her help. “He just said, ‘did I hear right that you’re wasting your time out in the Hamptons making fucking lobster rolls? Come back to the city on your day off and be my sous chef’.”

Above left Fiso collects karamū berries. Above right The swing bridge at Kaitoke Regional Park.

Not long after this meeting, New York had its first New Zealand fine-dining restaurant – The Musket Room. Unfortunately, it was slow beginnings, and Fiso and Lambert were getting scared. With already deflated self-esteem and nights with only 10 people on the books, Fiso was now ready to pack it in. Then, four months after opening, the Michelin Guide was released; Lambert’s restaurant had earned the world’s fastest Michelin star.

Three years later, working again on her birthday, Fiso realised she’d worked a double shift every single birthday since she left school. She looked pale and thin and tired. “Nothing big happened,” she says, but she knew she was ready to have more space in her life for other things. In 2016, she moved home.

On her return to New Zealand, Fiso found the way Māori and Pasifika food was represented in the mainstream irked her a little. She had taken a job at a guesthouse as a private chef for wealthy tourists and was frustrated that she couldn’t source any of the native ingredients she wanted to cook with through suppliers. Inspired by Lambert, and annoyed at how “tourism in the Waikato had made Māori food really tacky”, Fiso started to embrace her roots through food, beginning with her first ever pop-up at Meredith’s on Dominion Road.

Left to right: Pikopiko, young fern shoots, can be used like a vegetable or as a garnish; Karamū berries, or coprosma robusta; Kareao vines, aka supplejack, can have an asparagus-like taste.

Fiso’s palate is her greatest asset on this exploratory process – particularly as it helps her avoid being poisoned by unfamiliar ingredients. Not only have native plants been underappreciated, their uses are nearly completely undocumented. “I’ll find a load of stuff that I think I can eat, but just have to go, ‘okay what do I do with this?’,” says Fiso. Developing her style has been a game of trial and error, an approach that is slowly helping shape her place within New Zealand’s culinary identity.

When she looks back on growing up in Porirua in the 1990s, Fiso says a project like Hiakai couldn’t have been further from her mind. As far as her whānau could see at the time, the only way to be successful was to live a Pākehā-style life, which meant Fiso spent her school years rejecting her own identity. She “acted white”, even lying about her last name, and telling friends it was Basket (her grandmother’s maiden name), to avoid being labelled Māori – a word she associated with failure and shame.

Now she is part of a movement. Other chefs like Michael Meredith (Meredith’s) and Tom Hishon (Orphans Kitchen) are beginning to celebrate New Zealand’s rich ecological diversity through food, using previously disregarded ingredients like horopito, kawakawa and harakeke to cook with. Fiso is arguably taking this passion a step further – foraging for almost everything she uses, and cooking outside, solely over hot rocks buried in a traditional hāngī pit, a variable and challenging source of fuel. She has to begin the fire two or three hours before even starting to cook, and constantly monitor the pit for steam spots once the hāngī is down, which needs to be quickly covered to prevent heat escaping. She does this alone.

I ask her why she hasn’t set up a permanent restaurant yet, given that she runs Hiakai with very little help, and she sees a chance to comment on another of New Zealand’s hospitality woes, answering with: “why open a restaurant you can’t staff?”

It sounds romantic, going bush to spend lazy days foraging, but Fiso isn’t about to stop hustling. She feels an obligation to the many young Māori and Pacific Island women who email her every day, explaining how she has inspired them to reach their full potential. “If I stop now, I’d be letting them down,” she says. She also hasn’t reached her own goals, though she doesn’t quite know what they all are yet. “I know it sounds cheesy,” she says “but as soon as you achieve one goal, five more appear.”

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