A Kiwi restaurateur in New York incurred the wrath and rapture of some Americans when he customised his diners' receipts to include a cheeky swipe at President Donald Trump's immigration policy.

At the height of global protests against Trump's immigration ban last year, Kiwiana chef Mark Simmons decided to add a personal message to the bottom of his customer bills: "Immigrants make America great (they also cooked your food and served you today.)"

The New Zealand expat said he "really wasn't trying to piss off the President" - or plagiarise his Make America Great Again' slogan - he just wanted his staff, who were all immigrants and concerned about the political climate, to feel safe at work.

But Simmons rapidly discovered he'd bitten off more than he could chew when a photo of the tongue-in-cheek message went viral in the US, provoking a response as divided as the politics of the country itself.


Overnight, Kiwiana - a cozy 1950s style diner in Park Slope, Brooklyn - became the little restaurant that could.

More than 250,000 people liked a Twitter photo of the Kiwiana receipt, 20 international media networks descended on the doorstep, Simmons was thanked by customers "for doing God's work" and business jumped 50 per cent. Simmons, with his crop of curly hair, chef's apron and laid-back Kiwi attitude, was lauded as both an American hero and hell-raiser.

He received death threats from a man in South Dakota, who supported Trump's travel ban targeting people from predominantly Muslim countries.

A woman in Texas left Simmons a long voicemail complaining about how someone from Mexico had allegedly stolen her lawn chair. People trolled Kiwiana online and made false reservations under dead people's names and non-existent numbers.

"I became a bit jaded with people calling to say they were going to kill me," Simmons said, matter-of-factly.

"This one guy called two days in a row and I just said to him: 'Look, I waited for you to come until 11 last night and you didn't show, so I call bulls**t'. He never called back."

The Kiwiana Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, owned by New Zealand Chef Mark Simmons.
The Kiwiana Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, owned by New Zealand Chef Mark Simmons.

Simmons hails from Invercargill - "the most under-rated city in the world" - and said his Southland upbringing undoubtedly helped to diffuse the unexpected maelstrom. It also helped inspire his menu, Simmons said, recalling how his late nana taught him "a little Marmite goes a long way" in a sauce, glaze or gravy.

Kiwiana, wedged between a parking garage and Vietnamese restaurant, offers a refreshing slice of Aotearoa in America. The New York hustle is left behind when diners push through the heavy dark beige curtain into a quaint mom-and-pop style dining room.


The music of Salmonella Dub, Crowded House and Split Enz float through the speakers, photos of rundown Four Squares and Rangitoto hang on the walls and a greenstone hei tiki observes all from above the bathroom door.

Simmons left New Zealand at 17 and worked his way up from dishwasher to cook to chef in kitchens around the world. He arrived into New York in 2005 and fell in love with an American girl from across the dance floor of a dive bar not far from where they now live. He competed in the US reality television show Top Chef in 2008, got married and opened Kiwiana in 2011.

"As an artist it can be great to play other people's songs, but after a while you just want to play your own set and that's kind of how I felt," Simmons said.

He had dreams of evoking nostalgia with his own old-school-style Kiwi restaurant. "I wanted anyone who had ever lived in or been to New Zealand to feel like they were home," Simmons said.

He rented space in Brooklyn and found the perfect second-hand green patterned wallpaper that was so old the professionals refused to hang it.

"I eventually found this guy called Chip, who was 75 and retired and he hung the wallpaper with a smoke hanging out of his mouth the entire time," Simmons laughed. "Once that went up, I could really see the place coming together."


He built the tables and bar from New Zealand pine, ordered in Kiwi wine and beer and started working on the menu - and figuring out what exactly New Zealand cuisine is.

Of the 24,000 restaurants in New York, only three are advertised as New Zealand-themed eateries. The others are The Musket Room, a double Michelin-star rated restaurant based in Manhattan, and DUB (Down Under Bakery) which offers mince pies in Brooklyn.

Unlike most cultures that have clearly defined cuisines, Kiwis are known for fish and chips, barbecues and roast lamb. "I always get asked what New Zealand cuisine is and I'm still trying to work it out," Simmons said. Inspired by his mum, the Edmond's Cookbook she gave him as a teenager and his international travels, Simmons designed a menu with a Kiwi flair.

It includes Milo flavoured cocktails, Anzac biscuits, smoked mussels, pavlova and baby back ribs braised in Marmite and manuka honey. When customers ask Simmons what Marmite is, his response largely depends on his mood that day.

"I can be a moody bugger and so I'll either just say it's a salty, yeasty spread or I'll say it's a foul goop scraped from the belly of hell - people tend to like the latter."

Now that the immigration-receipt pandemonium has "thankfully" passed, Simmons is back behind the bar in Brooklyn. He not only owns the restaurant and cooks the food, but also serves his customers and knows many by name.


"There's something really gratifying about preparing the food and talking to the customers," Simmons said. "I can't think of a better salesman than the one who creates his own things to sell."