• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Celebrity chef Monique Fiso & the Kiwi food trends gaining international acclaim

Chef Monique Fiso. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Monique Fiso has starred in a top US cooking show and opened a new restaurant in Wellington to prove that there’s more to Māori food than hāngi. She’s just one of the talented chefs pushing the boundaries of what is possible in New Zealand.

In her dimly lit restaurant kitchen, Monique Fiso is putting together one of her most boundary-pushing dishes: green-lipped mussel ice cream.

The Samoan-Māori chef, who has worked at Michelin-starred establishments in New York, took about six attempts to get the savoury dish right before she added it to her degustation menu at Hiakai, her indigenous fine-dining eatery in suburban Wellington.

Fiso is hot right now and has been hailed as one of New Zealand’s most exciting chefs. She is in demand both here and around the world following an appearance on Netflix cooking competition Final Table, alongside a Michelin star-studded cast of celebrity chefs. The show premiered in November last year, the same day that the 30-seat Hiakai (Māori for “hungry”) opened. The restaurant is booked weeks ahead.

RelatedArticlesModule - MOnique Fiso

Fiso’s goal is to completely overthrow everything we know about Māori cuisine and indigenous ingredients. Her restaurant does degustation, so diners don’t have a choice about what they are served. This allows her to tell a story through food. Up until now, she says, most Māori cuisine has been associated with the hāngi pit.

“At Hiakai, there is no hāngi pit. We aim to make the ingredients so amazing and showcase them in such an original and delicious way that people will realise that Māori cuisine is more than just a hāngi in the ground.’’

When dining out, New Zealanders increasingly want to be told a unique story through food. More of our income is being spent on eating out than ever before. In 2014, we spent $4.3 billion in restaurants and cafes. In the last calendar year, this had risen to $5.6 billion, making it one of the fastest-growing and most-competitive categories in our food sector.

Fiso foraging for ingredients: “Most Mondays, the kitchen team switches from chef jackets and Japanese knives to tramping gear and hard-wearing utility knives.” Photo/Supplied

Every time Fiso sends a dish out of her kitchen, she aims to challenge herself and her diners. “I say to my sous chef that if a dish doesn’t scare us and we’re not nervous about sending it out, then we haven’t done our job.’’

Her green-lipped mussel ice cream is served on a base of heirloom moemoe potatoes, which are prepared three ways: baked in ashes, then chilled and diced; pureed into a vichyssoise; and crisped. The dish is finished with dehydrated mussel powder.

“It’s like everything you would normally put with mussels; it’s like a chowder, but it’s swapped around. And it’s cold.

“It was horrible at the start. I kept making it and kept making it, then finally it was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve nailed it.’ I put it down on a table and wonder what the reaction will be,’’ she says, recalling a customer who told her as she ate it: “I’m so confused.”


The making of a chef

Diners love the food, even if it is challenging. Hiakai includes a glossary of all the ingredients on the back of the menu and Fiso’s waiters know every dish intimately.

Although Hiakai offers fine-dining cuisine, Fiso’s version isn’t formal or stuffy – “I grew up in Ascot Park, in Porirua” – and she doesn’t mind if customers arrive in Hawaiian shirts. “I don’t care what they’re wearing. There’s nothing stuffy about me. I spent my childhood running around Cannons Creek.’’

She developed her food repertoire in Wellington and credits Martin Bosley with opening her mind to the possibilities of cooking professionally when she worked in his eponymous restaurant. She then went to New York, working for Kiwi chef Matt Lambert at his Michelin-starred restaurant The Musket Room. The 31-year-old says her time in US kitchens taught her the value of discipline, hard work … and pain tolerance.

In 2011, she was working in a New York restaurant when a fellow chef spilled a sizzling caramel sauce over her left hand. She spent two weeks in hospital and had a skin graft using tissue taken from her right hip. Even now, she struggles to feel sensations in the hand. “When I walk with my nieces, they don’t like holding my hand because I say, “You’re touching my bum!’”


Pushing boundaries

Fiso’s face was seen on Netflix’s Final Table series for eight episodes. She didn’t make the finals, but the experience of cooking alongside 23 global stars changed her life, propelling her to international stardom.

In 2017, she was driving along Wellington’s Tinakori Rd when she got a call from Netflix. She thought she had forgotten to pay her bill. With an expression of disbelief, she tells the Listener she almost turned down the life-changing opportunity to go to Hollywood and compete in the show.

Work offers have followed her appearance and she has turned down many, including her own television cooking show. However, she has a cookbook in the works and she is hosting a Matariki event in Wellington in June, alongside fellow Final Table contestant, French-Colombian culinary artist Charles Michel.

Fiso owes her success as a chef partly to her refusal to do things half-baked. She hired her Hiakai team six months in advance of opening, paying their wages as she trained them up. “It hurt my bank account, but not to do that would have been fatal. It’s like a sports team; you can’t expect everyone to run on the field after not training together.

New Zealand has a revolving door of chefs invigorating our food scene, but also achieving acclaim overseas. As well as Lambert gaining a Michelin star in New York, Wairoa-born chef Jessica Murphy was named Ireland’s best chef in 2018 for her Kai restaurant and cafe in Galway. Waitara-born Melbourne chef Ben Shewry’s Attica restaurant regularly appears in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; last year he was ranked No 20.

We import some talent, too. At the recent Metro restaurant of the year awards, Dorset-born chef Ed Verner won chef of the year and his six-seater degustation restaurant, Pasture, in the Auckland suburb of Parnell, took the supreme award. The food at Pasture is prepared over a charcoal pit, with innovative but simple root-to-stem and nose-to-tail cooking and an emphasis on fermentation.

In the South Island port town of Lyttelton, Chilean-born chef Giulio Sturla has won just about every award we have to give for his seasonal degustation restaurant Roots.

Jessica Murphy. Photo/Supplied

Out of house and home

Restaurant Association president Mike Egan says the increase in dining out coincides with our move into inner cities. More than two-thirds of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050, and Egan, co-owner of three Wellington restaurants, says restaurants will play a vital role in this future urban framework. “Eating together is innate; it is how we connect as a tribe. What and where we eat is a major part of how we see ourselves.”

So, what are the major trends? Around the country, foodies are increasingly walking away from starched-linen fine-dining restaurants, except for special occasions. Auckland institution Antoine’s, run by fine-dining pioneer Tony Astle, is the only establishment that still does silver service.

The casualisation of the industry is a worldwide trend, says Egan, who describes his restaurant Boulcott Street Bistro as “polished casual’’ – white tablecloths and slick service, but no bookings.

Auckland is leading our food scene, particularly with the diversity of ethnic eateries. “Immigrants are bringing in their cuisines and feeding them to locals,” Egan says. In 2014, Aucklanders spent $3.1 billion on food outside the home. By 2018, this had risen to $4.3 billion – an increase of 38%. In Wellington, food spending rose 28% from $1 billion in 2014, to just $1.28 billion last year.

Mike Egan. Photo/Mark Tantrum/Supplied

The big players

Auckland’s food scene is increasingly run by hospitality companies such as Nourish Group and the Hip Group. Critics say the food-group model, which is popular in Australia, is in danger of creating mediocrity in the industry – a bland, cut-and-paste experience for diners.

Richard Sigley, who set up Nourish back in 2000 with his business partner, Brian Fitzgerald, says there advantages to running restaurants through one group, rather than the traditional owner-operator model.

The company’s growth coincides with the rise of eateries: in 2000, there were 8274 restaurants, cafes and takeaways in New Zealand; last year, that had grown to 14,259.

With their US billionaire partner, Bill Foley, Nourish now has 15 eateries in its stable. Its big coup was snapping up Soul, on Auckland’s Viaduct, which was sold by restaurant veteran Judith Tabron and her business partners..

Sigley says the group model allows them to buy produce and goods off key suppliers, ensuring economies of scale. If one eatery is not doing well, it can be propped up by one that is.

Richard Sigley. Photo/Supplied

Their executive chef, Gareth Stewart – also a judge on cooking show My Kitchen Rules – oversees all the menus, so diners can expect consistency of quality from the group’s restaurants. The drawbacks? Not having the owner on the restaurant floor or cooking in the kitchen. “Owner-operators are more hands on. We can’t be there so we’re more reliant on those we employ to do a good job,” says Sigley.

Nourish has two restaurant concepts, Jervois Steak House – one in Auckland and one in Queenstown – and The Crab Shack, in Auckland and Wellington. Ultimately, Nourish will try to take both concepts offshore. The group may also look at setting up restaurants in malls. “New Zealand is pretty small,” says Sigley. “It’s getting to be a much harder game.”

Jackie Grant heads the Hip Group and its growing number of Auckland cafes and restaurants such as Amano and Ortolana in Britomart. All menus are overseen by executive chef Jo Pearson and it has a four-hectare farm in Kumeu, north of Auckland, supplying the group’s nine eateries as well as a butchery and creamery nearby.

Grant says diners are looking for a “sensory feast” that leaves them feeling fulfilled. “They want to experience the delight of something new, something they wouldn’t have made themselves while being welcomed in with authentic warmth.”

Jackie Grant. Photo/Supplied

At the coalface

As a counterweight to the size and marketing muscle of these large food businesses, Renee and Damaris Coulter of Karangahape Rd eatery Coco’s Cantina created The Realness, a social-media concept to promote owner-operated eateries.

It began more than five years ago and features dozens of Auckland restaurants and cafes, as well as ones from the rest of the country, Australia and even Canada. To be eligible, the eateries must be owner-operated, have been open at least 18 months and free of corporate deals that could restrict how they do business.

Sarah Meikle, head of the food festival Wellington on a Plate, says most cafes and restaurants in the capital are independently owned, allowing for more experimentation in the kitchen, but it’s also more risky. “Being individual means they aren’t bound by supplier contracts and menu changes for a whole group, which means that there are some really cool things happening.”

Meikle helped set up the Wellington food festival a decade ago and has overseen its growth into the country’s biggest. The growing trend in Wellington, she says, is the popularity of suburban dining, with quality eateries popping up in suburbs such as Brooklyn, Te Aro and Petone.

Outside the big cities, foodies are spoilt for choice with “destination restaurants” such as the award-winning Pacifica restaurant, on Napier’s Marine Parade, which specialises in innovative Māori cuisine. In Oamaru, Riverstone Cafe draws locals and people from far and wide, as does the iconic Fleur’s Place, in Moeraki.

Sarah Meikle. Photo/Jeff McEwan/Supplied

A new era of fine dining

In Auckland, acclaimed chef Sid Sahrawat is taking an afternoon break between the lunch and dinner shifts at his Ponsonby restaurant, Sidart. He is chef who has bucked the trend and succeeded in the difficult fine-dining category and, last July, he switched his modern-European restaurant to fine-dining Indian.

Born and raised just outside Delhi, the chef is serving some of his grandmother’s recipes with a modern twist. He’s taking hapuku from Leigh Fisheries, smothering it in Bengali spices, the Indian spice blend panch phoron and serving it with scallops. “It’s Indian, but not as you know it,’’ he says.

Sahrawat adds that fine-dining Indian is a style that New Zealanders are ready for because our palates have become more sophisticated over the past decade. We’re more adventurous, more willing to experiment with new dishes and food styles.

Part of the reason for the menu switch is that last September, Sahrawat and his wife, Chand, bought New Zealand’s most-acclaimed restaurant, The French Cafe, from longtime owners chef Simon Wright and sommelier/maître d’ Creghan Molloy-Wright. Sahrawat has renamed it Sid at The French Cafe and put his spin on the European-themed fine-dining menu.

Sid Sahrawat. Photo/Josh Griggs/Supplied

A bowl of cornflakes

The owner-operator model is a recipe for success if the conditions are right, but the restaurant scene is also littered with high-profile failures.

Sitting in Wellington’s busy Prefab cafe during the lunchtime rush, chef Martin Bosley tucks into a plate of eggs and talks about his current passions: teaching prisoners how to cook at Rimataka Prison (he pioneered the Wellington on a Plate dinner at the prison event), managing seafood wholesaler Yellow Brick Road and acting as a restaurant consultant.

Almost five years ago, Bosley faced the humiliation of seeing his Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club, go into liquidation. He and his business partner owed creditors money and were forced to shut the doors to his fine-dining eatery on Oriental Parade.

“At the time, I felt like I had my identity ripped away, but it was the best thing that happened to me. I’ve never been happier than I am now.’’

Running his restaurant was a 16-hour-a-day commitment. “You have a nocturnal existence. You’re only as good as your last meal and you’re constantly at the mercy of seasonal changes.’’

As a restaurateur, Bosley saw many changes in the food scene reflecting our changing palates. In the early 1990s, at his restaurant Brasserie Flipp, he copied the idea for brunch that had just started in Sydney. Before then, dining was something that only happened a few times a year.

“You went out for dinner for a birthday, or maybe because you sold your house. If you went out and told people about it, they’d ask, “What was the occasion?’’

Now he’s out of it, he says, “You couldn’t pay me to own a restaurant.’’

The hike in the minimum wage will hurt even more and he believes it will definitely be passed on to diners. “Restaurants have never had it so tough. Diners are spoilt for choice. People think that restaurant owners are rich. The reality is, it’s a bowl of cornflakes.’’

Martin Bosley. Photo/Supplied

Too few chefs in the kitchen

Today, 35% of our weekly food spend goes on eating outside the home, compared with about 48% in the US. In the Finnish capital Helsinki, where they barely eat at home, that figure is 80%.

Based on these figures, the Restaurant Association’s Egan thinks there is room for growth. However, he says, it is a difficult business with the profit average only about 3% of takings. “Bring-your-own restaurants have even less chance of reaching those milestones unless they’re family-run and working for the good of the family. There really are no rich restaurateurs.”

What’s the secret of restaurants that do well? “Consistency. It’s like a show. The curtain goes up and whether you came on opening night or 10 years down the track, it has to be the same. In fact, it should be getting better and better.’’

Around the globe, though, Egan says there is a worldwide shortage of chefs and highly trained staff. All the restaurateurs interviewed for this story identified a lack of chefs and energetic front-of-house staff, as well as the hike in the minimum hourly wage as major constraints on their businesses. “I spoke to another local restaurateur today and he is struggling to find junior chefs,” says Egan. “He said he may just change to a bar. Prices will need to go up amongst a range of cost savings.’’

At the National Restaurant Association summit in Chicago, attended by people from 14 countries, he found the industry is millions of people short. “It’s a really hard job to do. Kids see cooking shows and think they’re going to be famous.’’

Tasty bytes

Overseas, wage and cost pressures in the industry are forcing changes, some controversial. Over a lunchtime, hungry locals and tourists are pouring into San Francisco’s Eatsa – the city’s first fully automated eatery. When it launched in 2015, Eatsa was hailed a revolutionary concept. Customers order build-your-own quinoa bowls from online kiosks, then back-of-house workers prepare each dish. When one is “built’’, the bowl appears behind glass in a cubbyhole with the customer’s name.

It’s even more extreme at Creator, a burger joint where a single robot makes a burger in 5 minutes, all ordered by tablets and viewable through a glass booth. Spyce, in Boston, is the world’s first fully robotic restaurant. Its menu was created by a Michelin-starred chef, but it is put together by robots in the kitchen.

A McDonald’s in Chicago is fully automated, with all the burgers and sides made by robots. In New Zealand, McDonald’s has started getting customers to order their meals using online booths. However, a spokesman says there are no short-term plans to follow overseas initiatives. “The main technology changes are more customer-facing, with the introduction of touch-screen ordering kiosks, digital menu boards and the new McDonald’s app.’’

Egan says that while he expects to see some robotic input in the fast-food industry, full-service restaurants are likely to retain the human touch. “I am not sure the customer would feel they are getting the magic that professional chefs bring to the experience.”

However, Egan expects wage and cost pressures will lead to a new trend here that is already happening abroad: simplified restaurants serving basic menus. In London, the Flat Iron restaurant group serves just one steak, accompanied by a choice of five sides, four sauces and a dessert. Also, in nine locations around London, Burger and Lobster serves three burgers, a lobster main and a handful of seafood sharing plates.

“These places are full-service with beverages and do phenomenal business. They have one superstar chef who sets the standards, says Egan.

Back in Wellington, Fiso says that the technology of social media allows chefs to showcase their work and push the boundaries. Thanks to her appearance on Final Table she has amassed 25,000 Instagram followers who enjoy her foraging adventures, celebrity selfies and adventurous Kiwi kai. “Ten years ago, diners would have gone, ‘Where’s my steak and chips?’ Plus, the renaissance of Māori culture in everyday life has really helped what I do.’’

Paul Hoather: ”When you put a new menu out, it’s like a performance.” Photo/Victoria Birkenshaw/Listener

Pressure cooker

Paul Hoather is getting back behind the stove slowly, concocting soups and stocks, and making cheese. These are small steps for the acclaimed chef who suffered a stroke more than two years ago that could have killed him.

Hoather spent more than three decades cooking for others, notching up awards for bespoke dishes and the high-end, successful restaurants he set up.

Sitting at Charley Noble, the Wellington restaurant he and his wife, Louise, co-own with their business partner, Pengyu Du, he is an example of a chef who worked around the clock to feed the diners who came to him. The 62-year-old dedicated his life to his restaurants: first came fine dining restaurant The White House, followed by bistro Charley Noble, then, in late 2014, contemporary seafood restaurant, Whitebait, which was forced to close this year, a victim to rising costs.

Hoather worked so hard that Louise got used to dining at home alone. They chose not to have children because he didn’t want to be an absentee father.

“Being in the kitchen was a very exciting place; it’s like a drug,” says Hoather. “When you put a new menu out, it’s like a performance. You feel really good about it. That’s what kept me going.’’

At the time of his stroke, Paul wasn’t eating well, he wasn’t getting much downtime from cooking and overseeing up to 300 meals a day. After he suffered the stroke, he struggled to walk or talk. He was forced to relearn basic skills he had taken for granted.

Last year, the Hoathers shifted from their Brooklyn home to Nelson to help Paul’s rehabilitation. The move has been good for him – his speech, once difficult to understand, rolls freely now. He gets out daily for walks along the river with their dog and he has started cooking again – simple meals he can create in their home kitchen, just for the two of them. He’s getting creative by making cheese.

“I play in the kitchen all the time,” he says. “Eventually I’d like to make camembert and blue cheese. It’s nice to do.’’

Asked if he might return to one of his restaurant kitchens, he shakes his head. Instead, he will focus on menu development, to help the head chefs at his restaurants.

To some extent, Hoather is a chef of his generation. Younger ones such as Michael Meredith stopped before cooking took its toll. Meredith closed his eponymous Auckland restaurant in 2017 to spend time with his daughter, his fourth child.

The co-founder of “buy one, gift one” social enterprise Eat My Lunch says his first marriage broke down because of the pressure. “It’s hard being a chef and trying to be at home.”

In Wellington, The Larder’s Jacob Brown stopped serving meals at night to spend time with his children, and his Miramar restaurant is now only open during the daytime and for pop-ups.

The pressure of the industry has resulted in a number of high-profile chef suicides. The deaths of Benoît Violier, the French-born chef of Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Switzerland, in 2016, and Bernard Loiseau in 2003, were attributed to the pressures of maintaining three Michelin stars, considered the pinnacle of a chef’s achievement. Earlier this year, Australian celebrity chef Justin Bull was found dead in his Sydney restaurant, the latest in a series of suicides in Australia.

“If you’re an owner-operator, it’s your house on the line if the business doesn’t do well,” says Louise Hoather. “There’s so much pressure and a restaurant is such a public thing. A lot of chefs have very high standards. They’re often perfectionists. A lot of restaurants are based around one person. Everyone expects Michael Meredith to be there. They’d come here and expect to see Paul.’’

This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.