Māori cuisine has long been overlooked, even at home in New Zealand. The smoky, root-vegetable heavy cooking that relies on seasonally available proteins from the land and sea rarely made its way into modern restaurant kitchens. That’s now starting to change, impelled by Māori chefs who have committed to both elevating the culinary style to the level of fine dining and educating the masses about this traditional cuisine.

One of the chefs blazing the trail is Monique Fiso; many were introduced to her in Netflix’s 2018 foray into televised cooking competitions, The Final Table. The show pitted chefs from different countries against one another, with one country’s cuisine forming the basis of each episode’s challenge. Fiso—whose mother is Māori and father is Samoan—represented New Zealand in the show and took the opportunity to discuss her focus on traditional Māori ingredients, as well as her mission to broaden their appeal.

Eliminated in the sixth episode, Fiso didn’t get much opportunity to showcase her Māori cuisine on television, but she’s now doing so at her new fine dining restaurant Hiakai, located in Te Whanganui a Tara, Aotearoa—more widely known as Wellington, New Zealand.

Hiakai, in Wellington, pairs indigenous ingredients with a fine dining experience.

“Māori cuisine is the indigenous cuisine of New Zealand,” Fiso told the audience in the third episode. “It’s had this perception of being not so sexy and sophisticated . . . with Hiakai, I set out to prove people wrong. And I did.”

Hiakai, which means “being hungry for” or “having a craving for food” in Māori, evolved from a pop-up of the same name that began in 2016. Initially, Fiso’s grassroots culinary effort reached only a handful of people at a time, but when the Netflix show debuted around the same time that her restaurant opened in November 2018, suddenly her message about the importance of Māori cuisine was amplified to millions. “I didn’t even know if anyone would watch it, and suddenly it's like oh OK, quite a few people watched it!” she says. She’s still shocked at her new normal, which involves receiving fan messages from as far afield as Brazil and Mexico while running a jam-packed restaurant that she had never been sure would receive the acclaim she believed it would warrant.

Challenges of building a fine dining Māori restaurant

The show’s competitive chaos braced Fiso for the struggles of running a new kitchen—even such a popular one. “Oh, normal service feels so easy now!” she says. “There’s no clock ticking or a live audience or a bunch of cameras ready to show millions of people the mistake I’m about to make. So it seems pretty calm in comparison.”

That’s not to say she didn’t face frustrations, starting with the difficulties of sourcing the ingredients for her Māori dishes. “After starting the pop-ups I realized that there actually weren’t a lot of suppliers of indigenous ingredients,” she says. “I spent the next two years building that supply chain and making contacts. That was the hard part.”

The seemingly simple act of securing these ingredients can be a logistical puzzle. Fiso can’t just pick up the phone and order, for instance, mamaku, a collagen-rich fern with a honeyed apple flavor, which she caramelizes and purees into a jelly for petits fours. Instead, she works with forager John McLeod—who she’s frequently turned to over the years for permission to forage on the lands around his marae, or Māori meeting grounds.

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Then there’s the tītī bird, a seabird also known as the sooty shearwater, which Fiso buys from hunters who make an annual expedition to a protected island only a few Māori are allowed to access. She’ll put in her order months in advance for a full year’s supply. After their off-the-grid island trip, the hunters preserve the birds in wax and ship them to Fiso, who then scrambles to find space to freeze 50 birds for next 12 months. The tītī birds don’t have much meat, but at Hiakai, their fat is rendered and used for cooking or whipped into a rich butter that is served with bread.

Fresh seafood, like this Kaipara Oyster, is a staple of Māori cuisine. At Hiakai, the oysters are served with a mignonette made with horopito, or pepperwood, flowers.

But Fiso never uses Māori ingredients just for the sake of a good sourcing story. Whether mamaku, tītī bird, or red matipo—a shrub with a bitter apple taste that she gathers from protected lands outside of Wellington, dehydrates, and infuses into seasonal cocktails—the item itself is the star of the show, and she and her staff take the time to educate guests about each and how it’s used in traditional Māori cuisine.

“We create dishes and try to make them flow and tell a story, and when we’re dropping the dishes down on the table, we go through the different components and what they are,” Fiso says. Some dishes are presented with raw versions of their ingredients. A typical guest may guffaw at the giant mamaku fern being presented alongside the small, sweet, artful bite it’s used in, but marvel at the wizardry that transforms one to the other. “It’s really cool to see that reaction from people, like ‘I just did not know you could do that with this.’ And I find that the most rewarding part of what we do.”

Another challenge Fiso faces is determining how to use these ingredients, many of which don’t have common counterparts, in a fine dining setting. “When you’re at Hiakai, it’s like here’s an ingredient that [few chefs work] with—we now have to figure out how to work with it, we also need to do it in a way that’s respectful to Māori culture, so we need to do the research to make sure we’re not insulting anybody,” Fiso says.

Fiso wasn’t always as connected to her background as she is today. While she had always had an affinity for hearty dishes with root vegetables, fresh catches from the rivers and sea, and ingredients infused with smoke from the grill, it wasn’t until she became a chef that she fully understood that these elements are staples of Māori cuisine. She underwent extensive education—cooking, hunting, foraging, exploring—to learn more. 

Fiso eventually became known for her use of the hāngi, essentially a traditional Māori cooking fire pit, but now reserves it for special events. “In the restaurant we want to showcase the ingredients and show that there’s more to Māori cuisine than the hāngi, because it tends to be the only thing people associate with it,” she says.

Changing receptions

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Fiso’s dishes, and the Māori ingredients she highlights, have won the hearts, minds, and stomachs of her diners. “When we started, people told me it was kind of a silly idea,” Fiso says. “They would say it’s a really limiting cuisine. How much can you really do with it? It wasn’t taken seriously.”

“But since the restaurant has been open, it’s been getting more attention and some really great reviews,” Fiso says.

Fiso, on a bench carved with the Māori greeting “kia ora,” is glad Māori food is getting the recognition it deserves.

After centuries of being underestimated, this traditional cuisine has achieved some international acclaim. “After The Final Table, people are like ‘Yes, Māori cuisine, that’s what we do here!’” Fiso says. “Finally! But it’s also weird to wait for somebody with a different accent to tell us it was good.”

Where else to find Māori food & drink in New Zealand

Fiso is one of a handful of luminaries leading New Zealand’s Māori culinary renaissance.

Longtime New Zealand culinary star Rex Morgan is currently the head chef at Wellington’s Boulcott Street Bistro; he uses his Māori heritage and knowledge of traditional ingredients alongside his classical French culinary background, honed in Switzerland. For instance, he credits his time spent in marae kitchens with teaching him to consistently prepare food for large groups. And Tom Loughlin is a Māori chef who leads Kai Waho, or outdoor cuisine, experiences, including foraging and hunting expeditions and traditional hāngi cookouts.

New Zealand’s wine scene, too, is embracing Māori traditions—if not in ingredients, then with practices. Winemakers at Tohu Wines and Tuku, a collective that showcases five producers, are dedicated to preserving the land following the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga, or one’s sense of guardianship and caretaking toward the land and the culture of its people.

While Fiso and her peers are far from done, they’ve made much progress. “Māori cuisine has become much more accepted,” she says. “I look back two years ago at some of those conversations . . . proving people wrong about it has been quietly satisfying. There were a lot of naysayers.”

“[Hiakai is] only open four days a week, and I designed it that way,” Fiso says with a laugh, “because we’re going to need some rest in between trying to change the world.”

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