A whānau menu by one of New Zealand's finest chefs

At Hiakai in Wellington, Monqiue Fiso is reimagining Māori food traditions and the country's native ingredients.

By Joanna Hunkin
MOnique Fiso (from left) and operations manager Katie Monteith share a Hiakai whānau feast.
It was family that brought Monique Fiso back to Wellington, New Zealand. After seven years living in New York City, where she worked in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including the Musket Room, Fiso was ready come home. She considered opening in other cities – weighing up Auckland and Melbourne "for a hot second" – before realising she needed to be back with her whānau.
Whānau is the Māori word for family. It's used not simply to describe your immediate blood relatives, but your extended family and community, and all those who support you. In Maoridom, there's a strong sense of collective responsibility: when a member of your whānau succeeds, it's a success for the whole family.
Which means the Fiso whānau has a lot to be proud of right now. Since opening in 2018, Fiso and her restaurant, Hiakai, have become an international success story. Last year, Time magazine named Hiakai one of the greatest places in the world, while Forbes singled it out as one of the 10 hottest places to eat in 2020.
The day Gourmet Traveller visits, on a warm summer's morning in February, there's a waiting list of more than 1000 people trying to get a spot in the suburban Wellington restaurant. The dining room is booked out three months in advance, while the chef's counter is booked out for the next five.
They come for Fiso's unique take on native ingredients and techniques, many of which have never been used in a commercial kitchen before. Fiso and her team regularly spend their mornings and weekends foraging for New Zealand's Indigenous ingredients and experimenting with new ways to use them.
Chef Monique Fiso. Photo: Babiche Martens
Fiso was first taught to cook by her Samoan grandmother, who chose eight-year-old Fiso to become her kitchen helper as they prepared meals for the extended family. She grew up making chop suey and taro, along with other traditional Samoan staples. But like many Antipodean chefs, Fiso initially rejected her culinary heritage in favour of more celebrated cuisines, such as French, Italian and Japanese.
"I tried to fight it so much at the start because I desperately wanted to be like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay," she says, sitting at the chef's counter with one eye trained on her team as they prep for the busy week ahead.
"As you get older, you start thinking: 'If I open a restaurant, what would that look like?' You think about who you are as
a person, and home – the things you used to eat. Slowly over time it worked its way into what I was doing."
Returning to New Zealand in 2016, Fiso launched a pop-up dining series to test the appetite for her idea. The event was a sell-out and Hiakai – which means "hungry" in Māori – was born.
We asked Fiso to share a menu that celebrates whānau in all its forms, capturing flavours and memories of the past. She chose to make this meal for her Hiakai whānau – the team who works alongside her every day and continues to make her dreams a reality. Several of these dishes take time, Fiso explains, which is something the busy chef doesn't have in surplus. To make them, she says, is to tell someone you love them. That they are special. That they are whānau.
Hiakai, 40 Wallace St, Mount Cook, Wellington, NZ, +64 4 938 7360, hiakai.co.nz