By Arty Owens
When Monique Fiso first began her pop-up restaurant, Hiakai, it was an experiment with just a few tents, a Hāngi pit, and the stunning New Zealand scenery as a backdrop. Hiakai has quickly taken off, and after two years it has made significant strides in creating cuisine that is uniquely New Zealand. By testing the blend of traditional Māori dishes with the refinement and sophistication of a Michelin-star restaurant, Monique has challenged the way we perceive fine dining experiences.
Monique’s career is the hallmark of somebody who is relentless in challenging themselves. At the age of seventeen she was working for the award-winning Chef Martin Bosley. After graduating she went on to work for eight years in high-end New York kitchens, such as The Musket Room and PUBLIC Restaurant. When she returned to New Zealand she felt nobody was doing anything particularly exceptional. She also observed that what was considered to be Kiwi cuisine was mostly generic western. “They all seemed to be doing food that could be done in any part of the world” Says Monique. “So then I thought, why don’t I do something different?”
Monique has paved the way for Māori cuisine; however, she didn’t grow up eating Hāngi or feeling connected to her Māori heritage. “When I grew up it just wasn’t something I was proud of.” She says. “I wanted nothing to do with it.” It wasn’t until people showed positive interest in her Māori background, while working in New York, that she began to feel differently, “people were like ‘oh it’s really cool, the tattoos and the Haka’ from there it slowly built.”
Part of fine-dining Māori cuisine is the use of indigenous ingredients that have to be sourced locally. When she started Hiakai, native New Zealand vegetation wasn’t available at your average supermarket. So she trekked out into the outdoors and foraged for them herself. There is a kind of romance to this that makes Hiakai truly special: going into nature, creating luxurious meals from hand picked native plants and sharing it at the foot of a mountain.
However, there is also a practicality to finding your own, according to Monique, “you have no choice, you can’t call up anybody and get these ingredients.”
There is a change on the horizon as Hiakai has influenced a growing interest in Māori cuisine. “Through showing Chefs how to use these ingredients and how it can be applied in a contemporary setting, it’s encouraged them to use it.” One of the many perks of putting on a Hiakai event is “showing people what’s in their backyard and how to use it.”
When asked what festivalgoers should expect at the Hiakai Hāngi for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Monique explained “there is a different style with Māori culture when it comes to hospitality.” And, while you won’t be taken into the remote New Zealand wilderness, and experience the “caves, boats and canoes,” you will experience the Michelin calibre Maori courses in the traditional style of intimate communal eating. You will also experience the smoke and fire that comes with Hāngi, to which Monique says, “many have called it theatrics but it’s just part of the job.”
Just because it is communal, doesn’t mean it’s not of a high calibre.” One of the pre-conceptions she had to wrestle with is that the idea of family and communal eating isn’t usually associated with Michelin-star restaurants. “There are courses that can’t be broken from the tradition of sharing and enjoying each other’s company.” Monique has proved that there is no need to be unfaithful to Māori tradition, and has pushed the boundaries of contemporary food culture for the better. And, she is by no means finished.
Monique is the type of person who isn’t satisfied with a good review or a reusable formula. After giving Māori cuisine the high-tier recognition it deserves, and earning the 2017 award for Innovation in Maori Development, she says there is still more to do. “You don’t get there by chilling out just because you got a compliment. You keep going and going.” In her head she is always finding new ways to incorporate indigenous ingredients into recipes and making the Hiakai experience the best it can possibly be. When asked about the future of Hiakai she answered: “I want to make every part of that experience absolutely flawless.”