Show me the hāngi

By Sarah Catherall

Featured in Capital #53
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Monique Fiso is sharing Māori cuisine with the world.

When Monique Fiso launched her Māori cuisine pop-up, Hiakai, two years ago, the Māori-Samoan chef couldn’t have picked a better time. Te reo classes have long waiting lists, Māori artists and film makers are in hot demand, and indigenous culture is undergoing a renaissance.

That’s great when it comes to launching a business and feeding customers her Māori cuisine at pop-ups here and around the globe. However, the rub is that the 30-year-old chef doesn’t get much down-time. A typical day for her starts at 6am, and she doesn’t usually get to bed before midnight. When she isn’t cooking at food events or her pop-ups, she spends evenings writing her Māori cuisine cookbook which comes out next year.

When she chatted to Capital, Fiso had just returned from a week-long food festival in Hobart, Australia, where she cooked a hāngi in the dark at the winter festival. She was also preparing to open her first restaurant, Hiakai, on Wallace Street, Mount Cook, not far from where she lives.

Growing up in Porirua, Fiso began her cooking career at Martin Bosley’s former restaurant on Oriental Parade. At 21, she shifted to New York, rising from kitchen newby to sous chef at Michelin-starred restaurant Public in a matter of months. In 2016, Fiso moved home to New Zealand, keen to escape the frenetic pace of New York.

To date, Hiakai, which translates as hungry, has been a pop-up restaurant, through which Fiso has been both feeding diners and educating them about Māori food and cooking techniques. She creates menus with morsels like kawakawa sorbet, kumara cooked in ash and green-lipped mussels served with creamy kina sauce.

“There had been attempts at Māori cuisine in the past, but not at the level we do it. But now, I’m seeing so many different pop-ups and collaborations. It’s pretty crazy and cool,” says Fiso, who has studied Māori medicine and plants to help inform her cuisine.

Fiso prefers cooking and creating dishes to doing the admin. She spent months looking for a site for her new restaurant, and contemplated setting up Hiakai in Auckland as she couldn’t find a suitable site here. “Up there I could find all these amazing spaces and I was being shown these absolute shockers here. But I really felt that if I was going to be in a big city, then I may as well be somewhere like Melbourne. Wellington’s home, and I’m a real Wellington person so I was so keen to set it up here, and then this place came along.”

It’s fitting that it will be located in Mount Cook, as Fiso thinks it will suit being nestled in a neighbourhood rather than the CBD. “It needs to be its own thing, with its own vibe. It wouldn’t work on Courtenay Place or Cuba Street.”

What does she do when she is away from her expanding business? Fiso hasn’t had a holiday since 2011. She tries to take a couple of hours off on a Sunday afternoon to visit her seven nieces and nephews in Porirua. “I’m just really busy right now. I hope that in the next couple of years I’ll be able to wind things back a bit.”   


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