Monique Fiso: “It’s been a wild ride”

06 August, 2019 by
Madeline Woolway

Monique Fiso was always going to be a chef, but she never expected things would go this way: TV shows, cookbooks, opening a restaurant and critical acclaim were not in her sights when she left school early to complete a Diploma in Cookery and Patisserie at the Wellington Institute of Technology.

The 31-year-old chef, who hails from Wellington and has Māori and Samoan heritage, made the decision to drop out of school and pursue a career in an industry that is very different from the one she’s working in today.

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At the time, Fiso says she was questioned about the choice to study a “low-paying trade full of men”. But, there was no doubt in her mind. She remembers thinking, “I know what I want to do, I should just leave and get on with it.” It’s an attitude that’s defined Fiso’s career.

“I had high aspirations and ambitions, but there were definitely times where I thought, ‘I’m never going to reach that’,” says Fiso. “I didn’t think I would own a restaurant by 31.”

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Back then, the hope was you might become the executive chef of a restaurant after many years of hard work. Opening a trailblazing venue and working alongside the chefs whose autobiographies she’d devoured was something Fiso strived for, but didn’t expect. So with a head filled with Marco Pierre White’s White Heat and Gordon Ramsay’s Humble Pie, Fiso set her sights on kitchens outside New Zealand.

Initially, London was calling, but a chance conversation with a supplier led to a change in direction. The acquaintance suggested Fiso make the most of her eligibility for a J-1 Visa and head to New York. “I hadn’t really considered it,” says Fiso. “But I thought she made a really good point — what better place to challenge yourself than New York?”

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Following the same goal as the one she pursued when she left school, the idea was simple — cook. “The whole plan was: ‘I’m going to go to New York and work my way into Michelin-star kitchens’,” says Fiso. ‘Work’ being the operative word. “I think there was a bit of luck on my side,” says Fiso. “[But] once I got in the door, I worked like a beast to make myself valuable so I could stay.”

Having read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Fiso didn’t think it would be easy. “I knew it would be hard,” she says. “And it is really intense. It’s such a cutthroat city, margins are so small and everything is expensive. You get pushed a lot harder…”

Fiso started as a cook on the hot line, the only job opening available at Brad Farmerie’s Michelin-starred Public, despite only having experience in cold larder and pastry. “I knew I was going to have to compete [with] people who were just as ambitious,” she says. “It meant that even though my shift didn’t start until 3pm, I was there by 10am learning everything I could.”

It wasn’t just a lesson in work ethic and discipline, though. The experience taught the young chef what it would take to get to the same level of big-name chefs. “It’s not just about making good food … it’s about running whole kitchens and businesses,” says Fiso.

Fiso rose to the challenge New York City’s kitchen’s presented, but progress came at a cost and a realisation, which led to Fiso’s decision to return to her roots. “I needed to clear my head,” she says. “Even though New York was a great place to work, it can be a hard place to think.”

By the time she returned to New Zealand in early 2016, Fiso had spent the entirety of her career cooking for other chefs. “I needed to figure out what I wanted to do and what my style was away from my bosses,” Fiso says of the decision to take a “step back”.

A summer gig at a remote fly-fishing lodge cooking on her own for 12 people at a time helped Fiso reorient herself after the intensity of New York. “There was no one to hang out with [and] nothing to do except go to work and cook,” she says. It was exactly she needed. “I took all these ideas I had built up over the years and went, ‘Alright, now let’s make them’. I had all the time and people to practice on.”

It was there, at the Riverview Lodge in Hanmer Springs on the South Island, that her now applauded restaurant began to take shape. “I started brainstorming the idea for Hiakai and did the first pop-up.” Again, it was aspiration and ambition, not expectation that led to success. “I did not think it would evolve into what it is now,” reflects Fiso.

What Fiso and her team are doing at Hiakai has been well-documented. The attention is deserved — the work they’re doing with indigenous ingredients is putting the spotlight on Māori cuisine — but praise shouldn’t be reserved for the end result: Fiso has put as much thought into the organisation of her team as she has the dishes they plate up.

“One thing I never liked in kitchens was being set up to fail,” says Fiso. “You never have enough time to prep and then you’re expected to be ready for service and perform at a high level.”

Her experience in the high-pressure kitchens of the city that never sleeps has led Fiso to do things differently at Hiakai. Despite being open from Wednesday to Saturday for dinner, Fiso pays her kitchen staff for a fifth day which is solely dedicated to prep.

Again, Fiso has faced questioning over her decision — for many in the hospitality industry, it seems counterintuitive to pay staff for a full day without the revenue of service. “People don’t feel like I’ve expected the impossible of them,” she says. “We basically have two days [Tuesday and Wednesday] to get everything in place, which is why I think we’re executing at a high level [and] because we’re executing at a high level, people don’t mind paying a little more.”

Combined with an optional day of foraging on Mondays — which most of the kitchen crew take up — the approach allows Fiso to level up her staff’s understanding of the ingredients they’re working with. “That’s why we’re here,” she says.

Teaching staff to use the indigenous ingredients of Aotearoa, many of which have been all but forgotten by commercial kitchens, is a slow process. At first, the focus is on executing the dishes and identifying and learning the names of produce. Then, attention shifts to building more in-depth knowledge through foraging. “It makes more sense to them if they’ve gone out and picked [the produce],” says Fiso. “Once we feel like they’ve got it down, they [can] run food to the chef’s counter and explain the dishes.”

A low-pressure culture and time are essential to retaining staff in what could otherwise be an intimidating environment.

Now, with the restaurant open for only a little over six months, Fiso isn’t about to start resting on her laurels.

She competed in Netflix’s The Final Table while preparing to launch Hiakai’s permanent iteration and she’s just filmed an episode with Gordon Ramsay for the British chef’s new six-part food documentary Uncharted. In early August, she’ll host Australian chef and fellow The Final Table alumni Mark Best for a dinner event at Hiakai. Later that month, Fiso will head to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, for The Curated Plate food festival.

Although Fiso acknowledges the importance of taking time out after periods of slogging it, she also recognises her own restlessness. “I get bored,” she says. “Sometimes I worry about myself with this. If I were to just do the restaurant and only the restaurant all the time, I think I would go insane. Having different outlets is good for me. I can engage different parts of my brain and it makes me more excited to be in the restaurant.”

It’s more than restlessness, though; following in the footsteps of respected chefs was a driver for Fiso in the early stages of her career, and collaborating with others is what keeps her inspired.

Fiso honed her skills managing multiple projects while running the Hiakai pop-ups. Still, no amount of organisation can make up for having a well-trained team in place at Hiakai. “The number one thing I’ve had to learn to do and am still trying to improve and do better is delegating,” says Fiso.

Just as empowering staff is a clear concern for Fiso, so too is putting things into perspective for the new generation of chefs coming up.

Television and social media have done more than glamorise the industry; they’ve made some young chefs look like an overnight success. But, Fiso is the first to point out her achievements did not come immediately —she’s been working in kitchens since she was 14. “That’s 18 years at this,” she says. “You really have to put in the work, which I think a lot of young people coming into the industry now don’t understand. There are a lot of years grinding it out before anyone really knows who the hell you are.”

Fiso is no stranger to grinding it out, but if her experience has a lesson, it’s to know the difference between your own aspirations and external expectations.

“Now you’ve got kids who are in school, or just out of school, who are like, ‘In two years’ time, I’m going to have an empire and my own show’,” she says. “You don’t even know how to make bechamel properly yet. It’s going to be a lot longer than that.”

Fiso’s advice? Work hard, but know when to take a step back. “It’s so tempting to go from the next thing to the next thing to the next thing and not stop,” she says. “More often than not, you end up in a place where you think, ‘How did I even get here?’”

Fiso’s career has been punctuated by decisions informed in equal parts by instinct and rumination. Of it all, she says, “It’s been a wild ride.”