The Hiakai hāngī was one of the most exciting events at this year’s Visa Wellington On a Plate. Photographer Amber-Jayne Bain was there to document the journey of Monique Fiso and her talented international collaborators.
There aren’t many people in the world who work harder than Monique Fiso. She is driven to excel, but with Monique, it isn’t solely about personal ambition. She’s so passionate about food, and specifically Māori and Pacific Island food traditions, that you find yourself drawn into her world without even realising it. Before I met her, I didn’t even know what a manono tree looked like, let alone that the vivid orange bark would be turned into something edible, something delicious. I had only ever heard of kawakawa used in tea, and to my mind, kiekie blossoms were for looking at, not for consumption.
I’ve had the great privilege of working alongside Monique to generate a photographic documentary of the advent of Hiakai (as it is in its permanent home in Mount Cook, Wellington). In her rapid rise to stardom, a library of images is needed to showcase her restaurant to the world, and to illustrate some of the hard work that goes into creating each dish, each beverage, and the phenomenon that is Hiakai. I’ve shot for her regularly over the past year, and met a colourful array of chefs and front-of-house folk. I’ve learned many things about Monique, and about the marvellous food she dreams up.
Monique is young, super energetic, and from a family of amazingly hard-working achievers. She has a family ethic that I have really come to admire. Each Sunday, when her schedule allows, she spends time with her nieces and nephews. I think her food, so grounded in her upbringing in Wellington, and imbued with Māori and Samoan flavours, is part of that down-to-earth family focus. She’s nostalgic, in a high-class way. Who else is making Milo potatoes and crunchie bar desserts from scratch? Every time you eat with Monique, you’re reminded that she’s a Kiwi girl, albeit one with Michelin-star training. She is determined to bring each dish to perfection – no detail goes unnoticed.
Foraging in the bush for ingredients with her is an adventure (which usually leaves me sweaty, covered in twigs and with camera gear akimbo, while she maintains a more dignified demeanour). Monique always pays respect to the traditions of her Māori ancestors. She’s learning all the time, and passing that knowledge on to whoever will listen. The latest menu at Hiakai is centred around the adventures of Kupe, and the food inspired by those origin stories. It’s so important. This revitalisation of te ao Māori – through food. She is introducing us to so many ideas about the relevance of Māori ingredients, and the creative ways we can integrate cultural tradition into fine cuisine.
There’s a kind of pecking order in the restaurant that is new territory for me. Clearly, Monique reigns supreme, but beneath her, each chef has a place, a pressure to perform like a well-oiled part of the kitchen machine. If somebody hasn’t seared the venison correctly, or arranged their mise en place well, the whole process of preparing one of the highly complex dishes can be disrupted, throwing the team into a kind of silent panic. I was interested to see how that would play out recently at the Visa Wellington On a Plate Hiakai hāngī event, held at The Lodge in Maupuia, where a trio of talented, international female chefs joined the Hiakai team to feed the 130 hungry guests who came to witness the unveiling of the hāngī and partake in the feast.
Each of the visiting chefs were strangers to me, and highly respected. I was a little bit nervous about meeting them and inserting myself into their working space.
Ash Heeger, who hails from Cape Town, where she runs her restaurant Riverine Rabbit, came to Wellington to reunite with her friend Monique, with whom she had formed a bond during their time filming the Netflix show The Final Table just over a year beforehand. She was the chef I was most familiar with – both because of that show, and because of the things Monique shared with me afterwards. Ash is a force to be reckoned with – serious about her work in the kitchen, but with a quick wit and refreshing irreverence. She and Monique share in-jokes, and the challenges of dealing with a massive fan base who are always wanting more of them. Ash unapologetically shares herself – those who follow her on social media get to see the public and private moments. She’s open like that, and it makes her so engaging. I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody who was so ready to like and accept me. She’s cool, but not so cool that she holds you at arm’s length.
Nyesha Arrington came to us from Los Angeles. With Korean and African-American ancestry, she cooks in a vibrant and diverse city, and travels the world bringing LA cuisine to wherever she goes. She’s famous too – an appearance on Top Chef, a win on Food Network’s Chef Hunter and Esquire’s Knife Fight – and she’s acclaimed. The late Jonathan Gold, admired restaurant critic, said Arrington’s food tasted like LA. My experience of Nyesha that night is of a generous, professional and incredibly warm woman, who above all else made me welcome in her space. She would pause to have a laugh with the other chefs, yet maintain absolute care in her delivery of the dishes she was charged with.
Analiese Gregory, who began her professional career here in Wellington at Logan Brown, has now taken over Franklin in Hobart. She has worked in some of Europe’s most stellar kitchens, followed by five years alongside Peter Gilmore heading the team at The Quay in Sydney. Her new life in Tasmania has her living 40 minutes south of Hobart, in a rural idyll surrounded by vineyards and flourishing with a garden she has planted, where she is mastering the arts of fermentation and cheesemaking. She’s doing wonderful things with the menu at Franklin, and is one of Australia’s most talked about young chefs. She’s also absolutely gorgeous to photograph. I didn’t get to spend as much time chatting with her, but I found my lens trained on her over and over. Her trademark headscarf and vivid red lips drew my eye. If I was ever to point at a style icon I’d happily follow, Analiese is it.
These women are all very different. I am coming to know Monique well, but these others are as gifted and fascinating and passionate, and working among them was exciting. They admire one another openly, and I can see the affection that would quickly develop in the fraught kitchen environment. I think there’s a bravado that comes naturally to chefs that they can put on like a cloak, but when they’re asked to speak publicly, as they were on this evening, their humility comes to the fore, as does their self-deprecating humour. As people, these chefs can be gentle and vulnerable and funny, but when the work gets serious, they’re capable of ferociousness. I think that people who work in kitchens of this calibre are expected to be productive in a manner that many other industries don’t require. The hours are punishing, the work mental and physical, and the hierarchy absolute.
There’s a reason that mental illness and drug and alcohol problems are rife in the restaurant world – it’s all consuming, with a work-hard, party-hard lifestyle. Monique has her own litany of experiences that would make your hair curl from her earlier years in the industry. She’s advocating a much healthier way of life now, and is doing what she can to build a strong team at Hiakai, who operate at the very highest quality, but aren’t afraid to have a laugh when there’s room for it. I heard plenty of laughter in the kitchen.
The hāngī event for Visa Wellington On a Plate was another way for Monique to share her love of food, and of her own cultural anchors, with the wider public. People gathered in the dwindling twilight, wrapped in the funereal black coats and jackets that come so naturally to Wellingtonians in winter, sipping on Tohu wines, anticipating the moment of unveiling. The chefs had come together earlier in the day to lay the hāngī – baskets of kūmara and potato, carefully prepared and arranged in the pit, covered with sacking and dirt. The highlight would be goat cooked underground for many hours, making it fall-apart tender.
Shovels in hand, the chefs laboured to remove the tightly packed dirt from the surface – a job that was more of a workout than most people are accustomed to. The watching crowd listened to Monique describe the process of laying the hāngī, and one generous guest joined the chefs in the digging as more muscle was needed for the job. When they unearthed the feast, and returned the food to the kitchen at The Lodge, the hungry guests weren’t able to see, in this instance, what was done to the food to ready it for consumption. The team worked with a smooth kind of synchronicity – reportedly with much more ease than in the previous year. In the kitchen, bowls of greens and hāngī vegetables were dressed and garnished. Monique was tearing goat flesh from bones with gloved hands, ready to season and plate. The aroma of smoke and earth filled the kitchen. She poured a jus over the meat to amplify the succulence. It was all I could do not to filch some for myself in that moment.
A genuinely outstanding performance by the kapa haka group from Wellington High School set the tone for the conclusion of the meal – a delicious dessert of hāngī pudding, tamarillo, coconut shortbread and mānuka honey-ricotta ice cream. This food was both comforting and deeply rooted in Māori tradition, while at the same time maintaining a refined, polished presentation.
Each of the chefs who attended acknowledged what a special thing this food tradition is. There aren’t commonly used earth-oven cooking techniques in South Africa or in the United States that invite close comparison. This experience was unique for those women, even with all of their intrepidness and sophistication. It was pretty special for me to work alongside, and I have to say that next year, if I’m not behind the lens, I’d very much like to be at the feast.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.