Here’s a well-established narrative about chef Monique Fiso. You probably know it already - she’s the Maori-Samoan chef who grew up in Porirua, went to New York and slogged her guts out in Michelin-starred restaurants, then came home and reinvented traditional Maori cooking methods and ingredients for a modern dining audience.
She's won stacks of awards and starred in shows on Netflix and the National Geographic channel. Last November, her Wellington restaurant Hiakai made Time magazine's 2019 list of the World's 100 Greatest Places. Her name has become synonymous with horopito and hangi, muttonbird and manaakitanga.
She’s beautiful and ambitious and represents a new generation of Kiwi chefs. If she hadn’t existed, some tourism ad exec would have dreamed of making her up. Monique, 32, is a dedicated perfectionist with an intellectual approach to food that sets her apart. That’s why she’s been so sought-after on the media circuit and why Hiakai is booked out months in advance. But she’s not invincible.
“This year has been like a bulldozer,” she says quietly, sitting in her office above Hiakai. “Before Covid, it was just work, work, work, work. It was all about trying to get this award and that award. Then everything just stopped. It’s made me rethink quite a few things.” Back in January, her 2020 schedule was already jam-packed. Every week brought new opportunities.
“I’d just been going and going and going for years and not thinking too much about it. I wouldn’t go out to eat on a Monday or Tuesday, for example, because I thought I always had to be working. Before Covid, there were things to do in Hong Kong, Spain, Australia … and there was just more and more coming at us all the time.” Closing the restaurant during lockdown was hard but it also gave her a chance to have “the staycation I didn’t know I needed” with partner Katie Monteith, Hiakai’s operations manager.
The pair became a couple earlier this year but Katie joined Hiakai in 2019, after Monique realised she needed help to run the business. “It’s kind of funny,” Monique says. “I’m too grumpy and she’s always too chirpy, she’s everyone’s best friend. We’re opposites, but it works. “We joke about it now, because initially she wasn’t very high up the shortlist (when the job was advertised). The first interview went quite well, but I was really busy, so got my mum and my sister, who works in HR for my family’s business, to do a second interview because I thought they’d know who could handle working with me. When they met with Katie I thought, ‘Well, this will be over quickly.’
But it went on for ages and all I could hear was them laughing. Afterwards, they came up and said, ‘She’s the one.’” Monique says her family adore Katie, but admits she was nervous about telling her mum about their relationship. “My whole family is very private but I knew I had to tell Mum at some point and in lockdown I thought, ‘Well, the whole world feels like it’s falling apart so now’s probably a good time.’ I felt a bit weird about it but Mum was really cool with it. And now it feels like my family want to see Katie more than me.”
Working together has its challenges, but they’ve learned how to handle them, Monique says. “Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s easy. But there’s also a tendency to take work home and so we’ve learned that we get to a point where we’ll just say to each other, ‘Shall we talk work right now or would you rather we leave it until tomorrow?’ Otherwise the work would go on and on and on.”
At Hiakai, the pair share an office above the restaurant. Monique’s desk is a study in military-style order and precision, Katie’s is rather more cluttered. (“I think she does it to annoy me,” Monique says.) Home is a new apartment in Thorndon that they’ve only just managed to find the time to move into.
“There are a lot of things that I’ve needed to learn as a leader that she’s much better at than me,” Monique says. “I know how to cook but I’m not the most patient person and I’m not the best communicator. I’ve always been super-shy and a person of few words. When you work in kitchens, you’re not really ever taught people management skills. It’s more like, there’s a bunch of people yelling and you’re given some recipes, then rinse and repeat. “I think that if you know you’re not good at something then you need to find people who are. Katie is a people person, she can chat all day with people and it energises her, but it would exhaust me. I mean, communicating is not a natural skill for most chefs. There’s a reason we’re out the back.”
When Hiakai re-opened after lockdown in mid-May it was with a new Matariki-themed menu, sittings and new kitchen procedures. It also meant endless hours of rescheduling cancelled bookings - a task they’re still catching up on months later.
“Usually we’d have about 100 reservation emails a day but after lockdown, when we were getting ready to reopen, there would be hundreds and hundreds of emails every morning and the phone was constantly going. Most people were understanding when we explained what we were doing but every now and then there would be someone who would say, ‘I want to come TOMORROW!’ “The first month after lockdown was hugely stressful but I realised how lucky we were that we were able to re-open and that we were busy. It was almost like getting a second chance.”
Next month sees the launch of Hiakai - Modern Maori Cuisine. No one's happier (or more relieved) that the book is nearly out than Monique herself - except the rest of her staff, she jokes. "I started talking to the team about what I wanted the second book to be, before we'd seen the physical copy of this one, and everyone said, 'NO!' I'm banned from talking about a second book because everyone's recovering from me finishing the first one." The book's been nearly three years in the making - rather longer than the six-month deadline Monique was given initially.
She’s full of gratitude for the publishers’ relaxed attitude: “They were so good. They wouldn’t hear from me for months and then they’d get in touch and I’d say, ‘Trust me, it hasn’t left my mind.’” Writing and researching the book, which includes more than 30 recipes, plus a glossary of traditional Maori ingredients and how to use them, had to be shoehorned in between appearing on Netflix show The Final Table, and opening Hiakai in November 2018, plus myriad other things. Monique jokes that her family started to think she’d made up the book deal, because they never saw any evidence that she was working on it. “It’s a crazy thing to have on your mind for close to three years, not only running a restaurant but also having this massive deadline.
It’s pretty hard to run up here and write something, then run downstairs and do service, then come back up and write something again. I don’t know if I’ll be doing that again in a hurry.” For the past six weeks, she’s been thinking deeply about a very different kind of book. Hiakai’s latest menu is inspired by Patricia Grace’s iconic 1984 children’s book, Watercress Tuna & the Children of Champion Street. The story tells the tale of a magical tuna (eel) who lives at the bottom of Cannons Creek. The eel visits all the different children on Champion St, gifting each an outfit for dancing in or a musical instrument.
The book ends in a riot of music and fun, celebrating the diversity of the neighbourhood. Monique, who grew up in the Porirua suburb of Ascot Park, loved the book as a child. During a fruitless search for a copy of it recently, she bumped into someone she knew.
“I told her what I was looking for and she said, ‘Oh, do you mean Aunty Pat? She’s my neighbour. I’m sure you’ll be able to get a copy from her!’” Patricia Grace, now in her 80s, invited Monique over for ginger loaf and a chat about the story, which was based on students she was then teaching at Porirua College. “It’s a story about childhood and fun and the power of community and dance,” Monique says. “So the menu is the most playful and childlike one that we’ve ever done.”
Still, a new menu means a lot of work (“the week before we launch is always the worst, because no one knows how to do things except me”) and Monique’s mindful of how tough this year has been on her team. In September, she’s giving them all a week off. “We’ve had a lot going on and everyone needs a break.” When the restaurant closes, she and Katie are going to spend the week in Christchurch, “just to hang out in a peaceful Airbnb. I just want to read books and have some peace and quiet. “I love what I do but I know now that I don’t have to get too lost in the work. It’s not everything.”
• Hiakai, by Monique Fiso (Penguin, $65) is on sale from September 1 and available for pre-order at penguin.co.nz