Please excuse the 7 week hiatus from writing a new post. I’ve been busy tramping through the New Zealand bush, climbing trees for poisonous berries, making marshmallows with special herbs, starting indoor fires, picking teenie leaves off with tiny tweezers, and trying to keep my chef jacket wrinkle-free.
For the past month I’ve been interning in the kitchen at Hiakai restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand under Chef Monique Fiso. Half Maori, half Samoan, Chef-owner Monique Fiso has spent the last 3 years traveling across New Zealand digging pits in the ground (called hangis), trekking through the New Zealand bush, scaling mountains, and climbing trees to create Michelin Star-level meals using Maori ingredients. The Maori are the indigenous group to New Zealand, and for thousands of years they survived on foraging plants, hunting game, and catching seafood that flourish on Aotearoa (New Zealand). However, today many Maori have lost touch with their hunter-gatherer history and as a result, Maori culinary traditions are disappearing.
Chef Monique Fiso’s goal is to show the world (but most importantly, the Maori community) that there is important history in these ingredients, that these ingredients are still relevant, and that New Zealand does have a culinary scene worthy of global attention.
Piko piko. Mamaku. Manono. Horopito. Kumara. Kamu kamu. Kawa kawa. Kiekie. Karamu. Karaka.
The list of ingredients goes on. But unlike most restaurants who can put a produce order in and receive the ingredients just hours later, there is no distributor for these wild Maori ingredients. You have to go get them yourself (or know somebody who can). And that’s when the fun begins.
My first week on the job I left with Chef Monique and master Maori chef/forager, Joe Mcleod, at 12:30am after Saturday dinner service to drive 6 hours north to a region called Taranaki on a mission to collect konini berries. After driving through the night, taking a nap in the car, losing Joe, and picknicking in the bush, we sadly, did not find the berries we wanted. We did take back loads of other leafy herbs, as well as first-hand experience taste-testing gas station coffees across New Zealand.
That was just the first adventure. Since then we’ve foraged in the Wellington area nearly every Monday to stock up the kitchen with enough ingredients to get through the week. Last week I nearly fell out of a tree collecting karaka berries, bright orange berries that are actually poisonous unless you ferment them for over a month!
Foraging is also a great time to get to know each other. When we’re working at the restaurant there isn’t really any time to slow down and have a longer conversation, but I’ve learned a lot about the Sous Chef Max and Chef from our little adventures. Max grew up in Marseille, France and has been living in NZ for over 5 years now. Funny, energetic, passionate chef who even introduced me to his kickboxing gym!
Hiakai is fine dining unlike any restaurant I have ever worked in (or eaten in) before. Not only are the ingredients completely new to me, but the techniques are at a level I have never experienced. This is finedining. To put it into perspective: the restaurant offers a 6, 8, or 10 course chef’s tasting menu Tuesday through Saturday night and we are booked through May. May. I’ve had a few people ask if they can come visit me at the restaurant for lunch or dinner and they literally can’t, because the next available reservation is after I leave New Zealand.
It has not been easy. I have messed up many times. Multiple times a day. Doing both stupid and honest mistakes. I’ve melted the freezer. Spilled sauces. Made imperfect truffles. Lost track of inventory of a key ingredient. Struggled (and always will struggle) to be fast enough in prep and service. And still get stressed out when chef asks me to brunois (finely finely dice) or julienne (cut into fine matchsticks) onions or potatoes.
Despite all the challenges, I have learned so much both on the culinary side as well as leadership and management. I’ve learned how to fillet a tuna, shuck oysters, make jelly sheets, play with liquid nitrogen, question why ice cream can’t be savory (mussel ice cream? Damn right it tastes good), make gluten-free bread that’s actually yummy, use a smoking gun, temper chocolate, and think about how to make the Maori ingredients the star of a dish.
I really respect how Chef Monique and Max have treated me. The first service I really was not on my game. You can say it was because it was the first time I worked night service (I had been doing daytime prep shifts for the first two weeks), but I know the person that night was not the Sierra that has worked in other kitchens. I was timid, slow (really slow), sloppy, unobservant, and overwhelmed. I had one cracker dish to plate and I fumbled even that. I went home early that night and just sat and thought about how poorly I had just represented myself.
The next day, it was clear Chef was not excited to see me, but she didn’t just push me to the side like many other chefs could and would have. Throughout the day she and Max still continued to go out of their way to show me different things and recognized that I am there to learn. Even during the craziness of service, I appreciate that Chef tells me not to do something but she always explains why. For example: I placed a cracker starter on a napkin that was slightly not folded straight. She told me to take the crackers off and refold the napkin. But also said, “To put it into perspective: you went through the trouble of filleting the fish, drying it for 3 days, smoking it for a day, and dicing it into small pieces. The least you can do to honor your work is put it on a straight napkin.” That stuck.
I think I’ve improved since that first night. I mean – I sure hope I have. But I know at least I am feeling more comfortable and confident during service. I’m plating all the desserts, jumping in when others need help, and presenting dishes to guests sitting at the Chef’s counter. Now, with all that going on, those silly crackers seem like child’s play.
Outside the kitchen in my rare spare time, I’ve also been keeping busy. Foraging, selling thousands of hangis at the world’s largest Maori event, being a Maori TV star, getting my butt kicked in kickboxing…but more on those in another post.
For now, please enjoy some pictures that I both took myself and took from Chef Monique’s instagram page to give you a better idea of the type of food we serve at Hiakai. If you’re on Instagram or Facebook, I also often feature on @chefmomofiso’s story, so you can really see some of our shenanigans (including our “Naki mission” featured in her highlights and the occasional flash mob/dance).
Until next time,