Inside Tala, The New Auckland Restaurant That’s A Samoan Sophisticate

By Johanna Thornton
New restaurant Tala is the bold vision of chef Henry Onesemo and his wife Debby. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth

At contemporary ‘fun dining’ restaurant Tala, chef Henry Onesemo and his partner Debby’s long-held vision of bringing refined Samoan food to the table is finally being realised.

Chef Henry Onesemo has the fire crackling and all the ingredients laid out for the signature dish of his new restaurant Tala, due

“The stones cook the chicken from the inside out and it gives it a moist and unique flavour,” explains Henry, who has been hard at work on the timing of the umu, set to be the star of his new contemporary Samoan restaurant in Parnell. Everything has to be perfectly timed for the umu-cooked dishes to be unveiled in between courses and Henry and his wife and co-owner Debby joke they’ve eaten a lot of chicken in the lead-up to opening.

Tala is taking shape in the old Pasture site and the restaurant’s open fire was one of the key selling points for Henry and Debby. They knew the site had potential after visiting Pasture ahead of a Tala pop-up they planned to host there this year. The pop-ups didn’t happen after Pasture unexpectedly shut in June, but they were able to secure the lease through the landlord, who wanted the site to remain a restaurant. They’re aware of the publicity surrounding Pasture but say it has nothing to do with their vision for Tala.

“I look at it for the positive,” says Debby. “A lovely fit-out was done at one point, so there’s a lot to work from in this space. And it’s known for delivering a higher-end product in the market.”

Tala will sit at that high end too, with a Samoan-inspired menu derived from Henry’s childhood but “revisited and refined” through modern cooking techniques. Interiors studio Seear-Budd Ross is working on an impressive fit-out, and food stylist Fiona Hugues is bringing to life some of the smaller touches the couple have planned to make the experience special.

A design rendering of the new Tala space. Photo / Supplied
A design rendering of the new Tala space. Photo / Supplied

“Seear-Budd Ross really captured the vision,” says Debby. “They carefully looked at the space and listened to what we wanted to convey. They’re going sleek, modern, timeless, classic. It’s going to be a place where the food will sing.”

The renders of the space show a dark, moody cave-like dining room with textured timber, earthy fabrics and intimate lighting that puts the spotlight on the food.

The Tala experience will be both fun and interactive, an approach Henry calls “contemporary fun dining”. Diners at the kitchen counter will have a front-row seat to the flickering flames and delicate smoke of the umu, and the chefs preparing a series of dining “journeys”, which are tasting menus that encapsulate different elements of Samoan food depending on diners’ preferences. Intimate banquette seating along the window will cater to those on date nights or celebrating a special occasion with friends and family.

It’s important for Samoan hospitality to play a big role in the experience. Henry and Debby have some ceremonial touches they’re working on that will introduce Samoan culture, plus little extras like meaalofa (a gift or present) of lole popo (coconut caramel candy) when guests depart.

A terrace area that adjoins the 28-seat main dining room (Pasture was using it as storage) will become a casual bar area called Inu (meaning drink in Samoan), where people can enjoy cocktails and food from the Tala kitchen in summer — due to open in 2024.

“We want it to be a unique experience for guests from start to finish. I want people to be able to shut the world off for a few hours and to let us take care of you,” says Debby.

At Tala, the menu is a play on chef Henry Onesemo’s childhood memories. Pictured is cured salmon on sago cracker with coconut wasabi and fish curry with green banana and Palusami croquet. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth
At Tala, the menu is a play on chef Henry Onesemo’s childhood memories. Pictured is cured salmon on sago cracker with coconut wasabi and fish curry with green banana and Palusami croquet. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth

Henry and Debby took the plunge to open a permanent restaurant after a series of sell-out pop-ups at Bar Magda in June this year. Opening a restaurant has been on the cards for a while, but the overwhelming reception from diners “gave us the okay”, says Debby. “The pop-ups at Bar Magda were a true test.”

Henry found he really enjoyed working in an open kitchen and the interaction with guests it provided. “The kitchen being open really seemed to work for us,” says Debby. “People loved that interaction and liked it when he came out and talked to them. He enjoyed it so much too. It just creates such a different atmosphere. And I don’t think that Samoan connection and guest experience comes through without it.”

At the pop-ups, Henry prepared dishes inspired by his childhood in Samoa. A raw ramen salad was a play on the raw ramen noodles he’d eat as a child, with puffed rice noodles, radish, carrot and broccoli. He served his twist on popular food from roadside stalls in Samoa like fa’alifu taro (taro wrapped in milk skin with coconut) and lamb sapasui (braised lamb rib with vermicelli in mint, coriander and parsley sauce). Diners loved it, from the 20-somethings filming every dish to the older Samoan couple that stopped to tell Henry how fabulous their meal was.

“That really said something to us because they know their Samoan food,” says Debby. They had follow-up emails “saying they had the experience of a lifetime. There were some good takeaways from those pop-ups that really made us feel good about what we were doing and that we were on the right track.”

The menu at Tala will take diners on a journey. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth
The menu at Tala will take diners on a journey. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth

Henry, who grew up in Samoa, has always had a passion for food but it wasn’t until he gained experience in a kitchen in the United States that he thought he could make it into a career. “I was always cooking, you know, I’ve always had a knack for cooking, but a restaurant is a completely different thing,” says Henry, who not only found his future direction in America, but his now-wife Debby — they met in Orlando in 2011.

In 2013, with a vision of opening a restaurant in Samoa, “cause I’m an expert now, after working at a real restaurant”, he laughs, “I thought I could do this by the ocean.” Henry and Debby packed up and moved to Samoa, one of several moves the pair would make to follow Henry’s passion. They lasted seven months.

“It’s a different world living there,” says Debby. “As much as we liked it there and loved the lifestyle, a restaurant like Tala doesn’t work over there.” While they were in Samoa, Henry began to lay the groundwork for his cheffing career by enrolling at Australia Pacific Technical College, at the prompting of his mother, who was teaching at a hospitality school in Samoa, and worked as operations manager for Tusitala Hotel when Henry was young.

“My mum was like, ‘Do you know anything about running a business? You’ve got to go to school.’ I’m so glad we didn’t open a restaurant then,” reflects Henry. “I always thought I knew better.”

A “life-changing” moment happened during a weekend trip to Auckland to visit a friend from the US who urged them to have dinner at acclaimed restaurant Meredith’s on Auckland’s Dominion Rd, helmed by award-winning chef Michael Meredith. In their booking notes, they mentioned Henry was a culinary student from Samoa, and on the night, Michael stopped by their table to chat.

“It was just an experience,” says Henry. “It was hands down one of the best experiences — just memorable.”

“After that meal at Michael’s restaurant, we went back to the hotel; I looked at Debs and I was like, I think we’re going to move again.” Henry emailed Michael asking for a job. “We knew it was a long shot,” says Debby. “It was a small kitchen. What are the chances we were going to get Michael to take Henry on?” A few fraught weeks went by. “Michael replied on a Thursday saying, ‘If you’re here on Tuesday, I’ll give you a trial.’”

Coconut bread in caramel and Samoan cocoa. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth
Coconut bread in caramel and Samoan cocoa. Photo / Manja Wachsmuth

The pair packed up everything and moved to New Zealand in July, 2014. “He started with Michael and he just loved it. We loved New Zealand at that point too and really wanted to stay,” says Debby.

Three months later, Henry was offered a full-time position. Henry recounts his two years at Meredith’s with awe and gratitude. “The layers of ego start to come off being in these fine kitchens and working with people like that. Then confidence kind of moves in, which was amazing for me. I was working with people who had worked at Attica and Michelin-starred restaurants from overseas. This is the height of people staging [interning in restaurants for free] and stuff like that.”

It was a formative time, working alongside chefs Fraser McCarthy of Lillius, Phil Clark of Kingsland Social, Min Baek of Tokki and Bjorn Kussner of Noe in Spain. There were other stalwarts of Auckland’s hospitality scene like then-restaurant manager Mo Koski (of Apero), who Henry says infamously chucked his staff meal in the bin one day, proclaiming it “too sweet, buddy!” “I was like, ‘Oh I’m in it now, let’s do this!’” laughs Henry.

Debby, who was a lawyer in the US, ended up working with Michael on the business end of things at Meredith’s, gaining invaluable experience that shaped her path to opening Tala. “It was so different than being at a law firm, sitting at a desk,” she says of the dine-by-donation and micro dinners that Meredith’s became renowned for.

Henry says he’s grown in confidence since Meredith’s. Every kitchen he’s worked in, from Apero to East St Hall to modern Indian fine-dining restaurant Gaa in Bangkok has built him up to today, where he’s ready to be centre stage at Tala. Debby calls Gaa the “missing piece of the puzzle” for Henry’s career. At Meredith’s, he’d prefer to hide in the back, but at Gaa, which specialised in Indian food in a Michelin-star setting, the chefs would serve and explain the dishes. It’s something they’d like to incorporate at Tala.

Having “the confidence and passion to present food” to diners is something they hope to instil in their staff, with the duo working closely with the hospitality faculty at MSL Training in Manukau to fast-track talented students into the industry.

“We want to be able to give back that opportunity that Michael gave to Henry,” says Debby. They worked with the students successfully at the Tala pop-ups and hope to employ some at the new restaurant.

A design rendering of the entrance area of the new Tala restaurant in Parnell. Photo / Supplied
A design rendering of the entrance area of the new Tala restaurant in Parnell. Photo / Supplied

As for Michael, he’s become a close friend — he was one of two people at their wedding and is still in frequent contact. “Michael, as a person and as a friend and as a mentor — I didn’t think I would have a relationship with somebody this late in life that is so consistent in every facet of my growth — in the kitchen, in relationships.”

How does Henry think Michael helped shape him as a chef? “When I first got here, he told me, ‘Your palate sucks. Go eat.’ And then we went and ate. We ate at The Grove. We ate Simon Wright’s food at The French Cafe, we went to Clooney. [Michael and I are] eating yum cha together this Sunday. We just went to Cocoro together. That palate was probably the most important thing for me to have.”

Michael is opening a Pacific-style restaurant at SkyCity, called Metita, in October. It could be daunting opening a restaurant at the same time as a Viva Top 50 Auckland Restaurant Supreme winner (for Mr Morris in 2021) doing a similar style of food, but Henry disagrees. “I look at it as a win. SkyCity is huge, and there’s Samoa in print. We can only win from this. This is why this guy is the most important chef in my lifetime. As a Samoan chef, it’s important for our little island to start making the cuisine its own and I think this is a necessary step for the culture.”

That spatchcock chicken, which has been slowly cooking while we talk, is ready to eat. Henry plates it with coconut cream, lemon and chive-topped potatoes. The chicken is fall-apart tender, fragrant and delicious. It’s comfort food cooked by a thoughtful chef in what is set to be a game-changing restaurant. Book in for a memorable experience care of Henry, Debby and their team as soon as you can.

Tala is scheduled to open late October at 235 Parnell Rd, Parnell.

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