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Career

The Kiwi chef who sweetened up Gordon Ramsay

Monique Fiso's kai got the thumbs up from world famous chef.

By Lucy Ewen
Sitting at The Beverly Hilton hotel on a hot summer's day in Los Angeles, Kiwi Chef Monique Fiso couldn't be further from home. In fact, it's the first time she's not been on the floor at Hiakai, her Wellington fine-dining restaurant that specialises in indigenous Maori cuisine.
But the 31-year-old is in LA for good reason: she's here to publicise her starring turn with Gordon Ramsay in a New Zealand episode of his latest food/travel series Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted. It was an opportunity that Monique – who has also starred in Netflix's international cooking competition The Final Table – almost passed up.
"Part of me was like, 'I don't know if I even have time for this!'" Monique recalls. "I only just opened my restaurant last November.
"I said to Gordon, 'You're a chef. You know that the first six months of any restaurant, you need to be there every single service. We can only film on the days I'm closed.' And he actually accommodated me! I was really grateful."
Monique's episode was filmed in Stewart Island and sees her lead Gordon in preparing a traditional Maori feast. She has him climbing trees to pick berries, foraging for root vegetables and herbs, hunting a wild goat, diving for paua and eeling with a local fisherman.
But Monique admits she initially felt daunted by his reputation. "At first, I thought, someone of his celebrity – he's probably going to be a diva! I've dealt with a few before," she explains.
"But he was the complete opposite. He was so nice!
"He'd done his homework too, which really impressed me because sometimes when you deal with divas, they're like, 'You're the supporting talent.'
"Between takes, he was like, 'Hey, check out this video,' and, 'Do you want to say hi to my wife? She's pregnant!'
"I was thinking, 'What's up with this guy? Why is he nice?' I thought he was gonna yell! At the end of it, I felt really energised."
Monique was surprised at how nice Gordon was in real life. Photo: Supplied
Born in Wellington and of Maori and Samoan descent, Monique first made a name for herself working at Michelin-star restaurants in New York. In 2016, she returned to Aotearoa and began Hiakai as a series of pop-ups before opening the first-of-its-kind restaurant late last year.
So when Gordon came knocking, Monique saw an opportunity to showcase her cooking methods on the world stage.
"When we're portrayed internationally, it's the All Blacks, the haka and then Lord of the Rings. New Zealand has a lot more going on than that, and Maori culture never really gets properly represented. That's why I wanted to be involved.
"I want to make sure my country is represented really well and also show how cool it is. There's more to us than just a bunch of sheep, playing rugby and watching Lord of the Rings occasionally!" she laughs.
Hiakai restaurant has already established itself as a leading innovator on Aotearoa's food scene. It's "tasting menu" only, where lucky diners can choose either six, eight or 10 courses, with each featuring an indigenous ingredient.
It's clear Monique has hit her stride, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing. When she first made the decision to transform her pop-ups into a full-blown restaurant, no investors were willing to take the gamble.
"They were like, 'Nobody's ever attempted this. There's no successful model. If you're trying to open an Indian restaurant or a French restaurant, we know people like those, but we don't know if anyone's going to come to your restaurant.' It was a real struggle.
"I even had to get my parents to remortgage their house to help me. I'm having the last laugh now because my parents are quite happy with their investment! Actually, a few of them [investors] have approached me since and I'm like, 'You didn't want to back me then … so?' But just because it's going well now doesn't mean you don't have to keep working at it. You can't take it for granted."
Now gaining international attention, there's a great deal of curiosity and excitement around Monique.
It's Monique's hope that people around the globe are inspired to try a bit of Kiwi-style tucker. Photo: Supplied
Her episode has screened in US and here in New Zealand on Sky's National Geographic channel – and it's her hope people around the globe are inspired to try a bit of Kiwi-style tucker.
"I kind of hope the audience tries a hangi pit in their backyard!" she laughs.
"That would be quite funny. It would be amazing and actually mean we did our job – we got people excited enough to try and incorporate this into their own world."

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