Simon Day dined alone at Monique Fiso’s Wellington restaurant Hiakai, and discovered it was the perfect way to appreciate the meaning of this special food.
“Would you like a few more minutes with your phone?” the waitress at Hiakai asked sympathetically as I mashed a final goodbye text to my wife on the touchscreen. I’d told the staff I would hand over my phone to fully embrace the experience of dining alone. Now I had to follow through. The next three hours were the longest I can remember being separated from my device; the longest I’ve spent (outside of sleeping) without checking my emails and social media. Left alone with my thoughts and the unique food of Hiakai was the best way to experience chef Monique Fiso’s vision.
Taking a moment to disconnect felt liberating. Theories on how our loss of solitude due to our constant connection with the world through our phones has eroded our ability to engage with deep thinking, our inner selves and thoughtful ideas are increasing in prominence and volume. Until I was disconnected from my phone, I didn’t realise how truly dependent on that connection I’d become.
After handing my phone to the waitress, I immediately longed for its vivid glowing screen again. In those initial moments of the meal, as the native gin and tonic aperitif arrived, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. Usually, when I’m alone on the train, or the toilet, or waiting at a cafe for someone to arrive I’ll scroll, endlessly looking for something, anything, to pass the time.
Then I sipped the gin, and tasted the homemade sourdough with two types of butter, and my expedition through eight official courses (plus a bunch of snacks and surprises) of some of the most exciting food I’ve eaten was underway and I barely thought about my phone again. The eight-course option (there are six-course and ten-course degustations too) cost $125, matching the food with alcohol was a further $110 and required an extension of my credit card limit – YOLO. It was worth every cent.
Eating alone was something I’d only done in the drive-through carpark outside McDonald’s, eating leftovers at my desk with my headphones on, or on the couch while watching TV. The food is an afterthought. At Hiakai the food is meditative. It wants you to examine its meaning and message. Dining alone in the dark, almost spooky decor of the historic 1860s brick factory (with its two kilns preserved as part of the restaurant) let me completely immerse myself in that experiment.
Chef Fiso bears a huge burden. The young Māori/Samoan is the face of the growing indigenous food movement in New Zealand. She’s taken it on her shoulders to show New Zealanders, and the world, that Māori cooking – disregarded by European colonisers as unsophisticated, and perceived that way by many since – is just as important as French or Indian cuisine. She opened Hiakai less than a year ago in Wellington suburb Mt Cook, a permanent home for the pop-up events she’d hosted since returning from New York, where she’d cooked in Michelin-starred kitchens, in 2016. She’s taken those skills and techniques, that finesse, and applied them to indigenous ingredients – tītī, kawakawa, kareao, mamaku, horopito, red matipo, kina – to celebrate Māori and Pacific culture. The food is “inspired by the land, sea, and people of Aotearoa”.
I’ve become wary of very fancy food, long degustations that seem to exist to keep up with trends, foam for foam’s sake. I’ve become scared of food that isn’t just supposed to taste good and nourish, but is also supposed to be art. The fear stemmed from a number of experiences eating very fancy and very expensive food that just didn’t taste that good. Like art, the meaning of food in its most abstract or complex form appeared to evade me.
I understood Hiakai’s food. I stood in front of this painting and it spoke to me. I got the story Monique Fiso is trying to tell. My thesis: Hiakai’s menu is built to take you on a nostalgic trip through the unique experiences of growing up in New Zealand. With no one to talk to about what the food was saying to me in the moment, I found it reminding me of the past.
Each dish spoke to me with the fondness of a childhood memory. The sophistication of the expert techniques each course was handled with made the food feel like a familiar dream, a memory I couldn’t quite place. I don’t think I would have had this experience if I was taking a photo of each intricate piece of the meal with my phone.
Sometimes the nostalgia was subtle. The tītī fat butter that I smeared thickly on the bread tasted like the marrow my grandma taught me to scoop out of the chop bones. The kelp butter reminded me of cooking tuatua on an open fire barbecue at our far north bach in summer. A fresh oyster tastes like body surfing, the saltiness of the ocean washing through your mouth. Hiakai’s oyster, dressed in a creamy oyster emulsion garnished with beach spinach, was even more intense; like wading through a mangrove estuary on a school trip.
Sometimes it felt like Fiso was having a laugh. The deep-fried cassava, crispy on the outside and squishy and light at its centre, was seasoned with dehydrated tomato salt, the product of an experiment from her Visa Wellington On a Plate collaboration with Australian chef Mark Best. The waitress explained to me the more the dehydrated tomato was refined, the more it tasted like the seasoning from Eta Spicy Tomato Munchos. So Fiso embraced it, added some extra umami, and the single cassava finger was a tribute to the chip of choice of Kiwi kids growing up in the 90s.
The broccoli course – tiny raw florets and razor-thin slices of the stems, set in a light broccoli puree and garnished with the broccoli leaves – was a salute to the humble brassica. This time I was reminded me of the nightly wars my father and I would have over broccoli, where he would refuse to let me leave the dinner table until I had finished eating it. Sometimes I would force Dad to endure 15 minutes of broccoli chewing before I claimed it was a consistency I could swallow – much like Fiso’s emulsion.
Even the green-lipped mussel ice cream with potato three ways, the most challenging dish of the night, spoke to me. The salty ice cream transported me to summer days exploring rock pools and collecting pipi in the shallows. Mixed with the saltiness of the crispy potato sticks, the smoky, squishy Māori potatoes cooked in the ashes of last night’s fire, and the rich vichyssoise, it tasted like the delicious final particles of family fish and chips just before they paper gets scrunched up and put in the bin.
When it was announced that the hero ingredient of dessert was Milo, I couldn’t help but laugh with joy. A thick layer of Milo crumbs and malt biscuits was the bed for the frozen Milo mousse in a chocolate shell, dusted in Milo, and potato ice cream. I’m from a home where the permitted ratio was one teaspoon of Milo per glass, so the amount of crunchy chocolate malt felt delightfully naughty. Especially paired with a glass of A2 milk injected with a nip of Thomson’s white malt whisky. And the potato ice cream was rich, creamy and savoury, like salted caramel that was dug up from the earth.
Finally, my sweet petits fours included a homemade Shrewsbury made from the most tender shortbread, and a toasted marshmallow. At this point I was certain I had figured chef Fiso out – if only the cookie had been wrapped in glad wrap and served in a lunchbox.
The meal took me on a journey through summer holidays at the beach, open-fire barbecues, fishing with my father, spooning the top layer of Milo straight into my mouth, hiking in the bush in the rain, school lunches. When I was dragged into the kitchen to meet chef Fiso I told her that I had uncovered her intent, I knew what she was up to. When I explained my thesis she laughed sceptically. Sorry chef, but art is subjective and your food created a vision of my childhood, a time when a connection to phone wasn’t required to validate happiness.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.