“I was always fascinated by cooking,” says Monique Fiso. “I used to help my grandmother cook on Sundays and I loved seeing what she would concoct from her ingredients. Later, I would try to imitate her, then, at school, cooking was the first time that I came top of the class in anything and it felt really good.”
Monique excelled to such an extent that while the other students were forced to swap between sewing and woodwork each term, she was permitted to continue developing her culinary skills. “The teachers were like, ‘That kids crushing it, she’s making steamed pork buns while the other children are making sandwiches from pita pockets, just leave her be!’”
The teachers must be pretty proud of you now?
“I actually just bumped into one of my old tutors from Weltec [Wellington Institute of Technology] and he joked about getting my autograph!”
The 30-year-old Maori-Samoan chef has in recent years established herself as one of the leading authorities on Pacific cuisine. In 2016, Monique established Hiakai (that translates as ‘having a desire, need, or craving for food’), a pop-up culinary concept “devoted to the exploration of Maori cooking techniques and ingredients”. Monique’s magnificent menus are crafted using indigenous plants and spices often discovered through foraging the forests of New Zealand, implemented using techniques learnt through nearly a decade in fine dining kitchens, including seven years in New York. Such has been the success of Hiakai—both in New Zealand and overseas—that Monique will be opening a permanent restaurant in Wellington later this year.
Needless to say, the chef has been thrilled at the response to her Maori offerings.
Monique Fiso: Eel, Cloudy Bay Clams, Kawakawa, Kohihi – Te Pa OKE Sauvignon Blanc
“I always thought that only the foodies would be interested,” says Monique. “Some people are trying to reconnect with culture, others are trying to connect for the first time. I didn’t expect to find that this was wanted—and needed—so badly. And it’s not just Maori, Pakeha too have shown a real interest and that’s been a really cool aspect. In fact, it has been predominantly Pakeha.”
Has the general lack of knowledge about Maori cooking surprised you?
“No, not at all because there are just so few resources out there. Because most of our culture has been oral there are few written books. I’m currently compiling my own book and the research has been really difficult. Many of the books are out of print, and with others, there are only a few copies left—and in some cases on the other side of the world! If you’re going to write about Italian cuisine for example, you can go the library and take out however many books you need. Maori cuisine is simply not like that.”
Monique says she enjoys working with the “blank canvas” of international guests who have no preconceptions about Maori cooking or culture: “It also starts a lot of great conversations. There are so many similarities between Native American, South American and Maori cuisines for example, and it makes you realise that we’re are all linked in some way or form. The world is just so small and we should all just appreciate each other instead of all this stupid fighting. But anyway, that’s a different story.”
For the past few months, Monique has also been involved with a programme at Rimutaka Prison. “It’s with Martin Bosley, the first fine dining chef I worked with in my late teens and early twenties,” Monique says. “He’s been doing it for six years.” The programme involves training a selection of inmates to prepare a “difficult, three-course fine dining menu with snacks” over several months, culminating in them serving their menu to paying guests at the prison in August as part of Wellington On a Plate.
“It’s been a real eye-opener,” admits Monique. “It really gets under your skin. So many of the inmates are good people who made bad decisions and it has made me look at prisons in a different way. You realise that there are so many things in society that need to be fixed before it gets to that point. When you spend time with them, and get to know them, you soon realise that some never really stood a chance in life. They are decent people who could become positive, contributing members of society.”