What began with a school-age fascination for lolly recipes and helping her grandma punch out large family Sunday lunches has led Samoan-Maori chef Monique Fiso on an impressive culinary journey.
She left her hometown of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) as a 20-something and worked for seven years in Michelin-starred New York restaurants such as The Musket Room.
Missing her family, she returned to Wellington in 2016 and opened Hiakai (Maori for hungry), a pop-up restaurant specialising in dishes using indigenous ingredients cooked in a hangi (earth oven). The bricks-and-mortar version of her restaurant opened in November 2018, almost to the day the Netflix duelling chef series Final Table went to air, in which she was a featured contestant.
Since then she's appeared alongside Gordon Ramsay in his Uncharted series for National Geographic, won Cuisine magazine's Future Food Legend Award, and Hiakai was named in TIME magazine's 100 greatest places of 2019. Not bad for a chef aged 32.
What were you craving when you arrived home in Wellington?
I always miss green-lipped mussels and just getting fish and chips from the actual fish and chip shop. There's this thing in New York where they muck around with the batter and put things like turmeric in it. And also, just going to grandma's house and eating things like taro and Samoan chop suey: vermicelli noodles with random bits of beef that's been fried off with onions, garlic and a whole bunch of soy sauce dumped on top.
Best local fish and chips?
On Lyall Bay there's one right across the road from the beach (Seaview Takeaways), which is my favourite, because you can eat and look over the beach.
What does Wellington do really well?
Cafes and craft beer. It used to be the place in terms of food in New Zealand and then the recession came and made it trickier. The dynamic changed and everyone freaked out and went to Auckland because it was a safer bet (you've got one million people there as opposed to 400,000). But now we've had a resurgence of the Wellington dining scene, which is really great.
Top three cafes?
Definitely go to Prefab. That place pumps: lots of baked goods, spot-on flat whites, and really good breakfast. Another would be Leeds Street Bakery. They're much quieter and have an interesting selection of breads because they do a lot of baking in-house. Then there's Loretta. It's really good. I'm not on a paleo diet or a vegan but they can cater more towards that. Marc Weir, the owner, has been in the industry in Wellington for a long time; he's just one of those really good operators, he's slick.
Is there a Wellington equivalent to smashed avocado?
Something we all joke about but secretly love is the fact that no matter what cafe you go to, it will have every version of eggs benedict and eggs florentine. If you don't, you're not a cafe. And also the bacon butty. You don't toast the bread – just white bread, bacon, and barbecue sauce. It's a thing.
Favourite craft beer?
I love the guys at Garage Project. We're working on something with them using some of their ferments and indigenous ingredients and we'll see where it takes us. And if you're going to drink beer you should definitely go to Golding's Free Dive, the quirkiest craft beer bar in the city. Everything's there. You just look around the room and it's so Wellington. The light shades are buckets with a hole in them, there's colourful Star Wars memorabilia. And the owner, Sean Golding, is very quirky and eccentric as well. It's almost as if his entire personality has been thrown all over the walls, which makes it so good. He opened another bar down the road, Puffin, which is more of a wine and cocktail bar; it's really good as well.
My favourite at the moment is Night Flower. There's no menu; you just go in and sit down and say "I feel like ... " and they'll go and make something. It's kind of hidden. You walk down Ghuznee Street, go up the stairwell and you see a door, with a lion's head knocker and that's the bar. It's nice and quiet, too. We send a lot of guests down there after dinner.
What other restaurants in Wellington do you recommend?
Definitely check out Shepherd. It's a pretty casual restaurant but they're doing some really thoughtful food. Sit at the counter so you can watch everyone cooking or zone out – they're quite entertaining and super friendly. Another place is Rita, which is a small restaurant seating only about 20, so you have to choose either the 5pm or the 8.30pm sitting. Again, really simple but really thoughtful. Then there's Dragons, a Chinese restaurant that I love. It's definitely a chef's spot, too. It's yum cha, it's classic, it's been around forever. You see everyone from A-list celebrities filming stuff with Weta Workshop to cooks – it's a real hodgepodge of people.
What about wine?
Noble Rot is definitely the place to go – their list is incredible, they know their stuff inside out and the food's really good. The closest winery is Martinborough, which is over the hill from us, and if you're going to get anything from there you're going to want to try a pinot – I'm a big pinot fan.
For something sweet?
Grace Patisserie opened in April 2019 and it's so good. I like to pick up a box of almond croissants. Usually she has all these different desserts and they're all super rich. You eat one and think, "I can't eat for the rest of the day". The mousse cake is glazed in chocolate and it's got all these hokey pokey bits in it – it's delicious. In fact, it's become a bit of an addiction I should probably curb.
Monique Fiso was a guest of the Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress held in Melbourne in October, 2019.
Seaview Takeaways, 92 Lyall Parade, Lyall Bay, Wellington
Leeds Street Bakery, leedsstbakery.co.nz
Garage Project Cellar Door, garageproject.co.nz
Goldings Free Dive, goldingsfreedive.co.nz
Puffin Wine Bar, puffinwinebar.com
Night Flower, level 1, 55 Ghuznee Street, Te Aro, Wellington
Dragons Restaurant, wellingtondragons.co.nz
Noble Rot Wine Bar, noblerot.co.nz
Martinborough Vineyard, martinborough-vineyard.co.nz
Grace Patisserie, gracepatisserie.nz