Why Chef Monique Fiso Is A Culinary Pioneer
The Wellington-based chef had a high-octane year sharing her high-end Maori kai on the world stage
Monique Fiso says she’s appeared in enough magazines now (well, she made an exception for us). After years of pop-ups, guest appearances and being hailed by the media as the saviour of Maori cuisine, this year she decided to put her money where her mouth is and open up her own dedicated Wellington restaurant serving high-end kai Maori.
It’s an idea whose time has come. I know this because I tried to reserve a table and found the restaurant almost entirely booked out until Christmas. So instead of watching her cook in person I watched her on TV — she stars in Netflix show The Final Table, representing New Zealand against a selection of very intense chefs from around the world. The show ends with her in tears, although because of the International Convention on Television Spoilers I can’t tell you whether they’re tears of anguish or joy.
She didn’t sound anguished when I talked to her on the eve of opening her restaurant, called Hiakai (it means hungry). Having previously cooked at temporary venues around the country she was looking forward to having a permanent home, with the stability of staff and ingredients that come with it. Her team has worked for months, journeying into the bush to find edible plants — “ingredients that have never been on a menu before” — performing numerous tests to confirm safety and deliciousness then turning them into fine-dining food (and drinks — Monique says they’ve spent just as much time and money on their non-alcoholic beverage menu).
“I love a hangi,” she tells me, “and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. But I want to show that there is more to Maori cuisine.”
Lest it all sound too fancy, Monique is working hard to make sure customers feel comfortable and welcome.
“I grew up in Porirua,” she says. “I’m not about to turn into some tosser. I haven’t forgotten where I’m from.”
There’s history in the food, and history in the restaurant, housed in a brick building in Mt Cook with kilns dating from the 1860s. But for now Monique is focused on the future, where each new day she will lead her kitchen to fine-tune and elevate the offering. It’s a future she’s excited about, thanks to a new confidence that the food she’s creating is world class.
“I walked away from the Netflix show saying ‘okay, I did well against these incredibly talented humans. I can do this’,” she says. “I don’t want this to be just another restaurant. I want it to be something special.”