Into The Heart of The Earth
New Zealand’s chef Monique Fiso on why her dinners make people cry.
March 8, 2018 ● 8 min read
By Cassandra Landry | Original photo by Kate Crockett; photo illustration by ChefsFeed
When you begin to dig up a hangi pit, the thing that hits you after the first few shovels of dirt is the smell.
It’s the scent of altered earth, of flavor trapped in a subterranean oven, traveling upwards on tendrils, then billows, of steam. The further you go, the stronger it gets.
A hāngi is a traditional Māori pit oven, powered by the elemental alliance of water and blazing hot stone. Seasoned ingredients, carefully wrapped in woven parcels, are arranged in a wire basket by cooking time—proteins go on the bottom, closest to the rocks, with vegetables and more delicate preparations like pudding, above—and placed over stones pulled from a fire. The whole parcel is then covered with a protective sheet and draped with layers of wet fabric before disappearing under the dirt.
The first time Monique Fiso did this was not, as you might expect, in a remote and private locale where she could practice shuttling those scorching hot rocks into a freshly dug pit and test her ability to pull fully-cooked food from it a few hours later. It was in front of a crowd of paying guests, eyes all eagerly trained on her back as she faced the small mountain of soil safeguarding their dinner. A few friends she had roped into helping stood by.
Points for moxie.
“I was petrified,” she says, laughing. It’s the kind of laugh only freed by hindsight. “What if I’m about to pull a whole bunch of raw food out of the ground? I booked two weeks of these dinners.”
As the hāngi revealed its treasures, Fiso surreptitiously checked each basket, ready to mask her panic from the onlookers if she had failed. Miraculously, she hadn’t.
“It should have all gone wrong, but it didn’t,” she says. Relief flooded her limbs, and the dinner continued. “That first one felt so awesome.”
Fiso is the chef of Hiakai, a pop-up series rooted in traditional Māori techniques and ingredients. What began as occasional guest appearances in established restaurants soon morphed into something even more immersive: intimate dinners out in the wilds of New Zealand, guests gathered together at one table under a tent.
In a culinary era that aches for representation and intelligent modern interpretations of long-held cultural ritual, Hiakai feels like an answer. More often than not, experiencing it—from the warm night wind blowing through the tent to the familiar flavors discovered anew—leaves guests in tears.
“I figured there had to be people out there who were looking for this like I was,” Fiso says. “Just make me feel something: that’s what I want. But the reactions are hard to explain. By looking at Māori cuisine in a different way, we tapped into something I wasn’t aware we’d be tapping into.”
The service is high-end, but warm, inclusive. Dinners are punctuated by twilight walks for star-gazing and easy conversation between cooks and guests. It’s meant to be a shared experience, and the removal of fine dining etiquette in favor of hospitality in its purest form provokes some kind of revelation in its recipients.
“I think a lot of chefs express themselves well on the plate, but don’t necessarily open themselves up to their guests, and really let them in,” she says. “I wanted to be able to recreate that feeling where, even if just for a night, you feel like you’re a part of something, rather than just another person passing through the dining room.”
Like most pedigreed chefs, Fiso started young. She began in Wellington, working under Chef Martin Bosley at his restaurant of the same name, eventually serving as chef de partie. At 20, she left for New York City to make it, and for years, she worked the Michelin circuit: a stint at Brad Farmerie’s PUBLIC restaurant, at A Voce, with Missy Robbins and her mastery of pasta, and at fellow Kiwi Matt Lambert’s kitchen at The Musket Room, an ode to the country serving dishes inspired by the Pacific Rim—among others.
“I loved my time in New York, but I started to feel really lonely. I think it happens to everybody— you become this machine,” she says. “I started to realize that I didn’t have a good answer for why I was still there, living in a shoebox and working 100 hours a week, not seeing my friends.
“I felt like I was losing myself. I wasn’t even a nice person anymore! I turned into a bit of a psycho,” she says. “All my bosses had achieved so much, but none of them seemed happy, or even content, with their lives. Was it my goal to become that? I hadn’t thought about what I wanted. I’d just been trying to get ready for service, and getting service right, and then doing it again.”
The natural byproduct of burn-out, no matter the industry, is doubt. Of the crushing, existential, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-I’ve-made-a-terrible-mistake variety.
“That’s the unfortunate thing about cooking,” she says. “You spend so many years getting yelled at, being told you suck at this, and you need to work on this, and you need to move faster. Obviously, you do get better eventually, but you end up with pretty crappy self-esteem."
A thought loomed for a brief and ugly moment: perhaps she had made a wrong turn, that she wasn’t cut out for this life she’d devoted herself to for over a decade. But in lieu of any appealing immediate alternatives, she went for primal needs first: home, and sleep.
So she left, pulled back across 8,928 miles to the open skies and never-ending ocean and lush countryside that she missed, in denial about how and what she liked to cook. And then she slept. When she awoke, an opportunity presented itself, as they usually do.
By Aaron Mclean
“I got back to New Zealand and took this really bizarre, temporary summer job at a trout fishing lodge in the middle of nowhere. Guests would come every week, and you’d cook for them,” she says. “You had to do everything yourself, but it was four courses of whatever you wanted.”
Fiso cooked—day after day, course after course—for two months, and thought about what to do next. “It gave me time to find out what my style actually was, away from the noise of New York,” she says. “To clear my head, and rediscover that I freakin’ love cooking. So if I could do what I wanted, what might that look like?”
Turns out it looks like what you'd cook if it was possible to lay down in your favorite place and sink into it completely, letting it remake you. If you could exist in a view, and then manage to explain what it was like through food. It’s a weird thing, cooking in Michelin-starred kitchens, she says. “It’s all about clean lines, which I do love in some courses, but in others, I like to go almost old-school—more rustic. It was like, clearly, this is your style and preference, so stop trying to be who you used to work for.
“I fought that for the longest time, and was committed to making something as pretentious as possible. Like, everything’s gotta be brunoise. We gotta turn this into a gel and make it pop up into a balloon, and I think a lot of chefs go through that,” she admits. “Like, who is this dish for—you and the guest? Or are you trying to please the bosses in your subconscious? Are you doing it because you want to, or because it’s the way you were trained?”
Back in New York, her creative process was one familiar to most: a rudimentary plating sketch in the pages of a notebook. Arrow marks denoted possibilities for each element—how many different ways could she pull apart cranberry, for example.
“Now, instead of drawing the goddamn cranberry and writing a list of ways to make it not a cranberry, I’ll just go and eat a cranberry,” she says. “The meal might start with something really modern, with things coming out of siphons, but then the next two courses come out of the earth, and so on. I’m lucky that I get to play around with all of that and make it into one meal.”
Someone once described the food at Hiakai as “terrifyingly delicious.” Even in photographs, the description makes sense. One image, of golden brown bread rolls each inlaid with a small fern tendril, crisp and paused mid-unfurl, is arresting for reasons that don’t quite make sense. It looks like a stamp, or a badge, or a simple coat of arms. It’s decorative, but it’s also a declaration, a theme that shows up again and again.
Foraged ingredients are always in danger of losing their impact once they’re contained in a dish. It’s not enough to simply present it as evidence of your thoughtful terroir; you must also evoke the feeling of its environment. You have to make the earth breathe on the plate. Fiso seems to do this so well it could feasibly be described as “terrifying”— it hints at a broader transformative power of food. It can show you who you are.
“We’re taught all about American history and British history in school,” Fiso says. “We’re taught the basics. So the guests are mainly Kiwis looking to learn more about their own country and connect with the land and have a dining experience. I love that.”
Fiso and her team just wrapped the last dinner of the season along the Whanganui river—the first to be legally declared a human being. Prior to the arrival of the Brits, the banks of the Whanganui made up the most densely populated region in New Zealand, thanks to its generous microclimates and versatile food sources. It’s where most Māori lived, and where most of Fiso’s flavors originated. Guests arrived by jet boat, camped on-site, and returned home by canoe.
“When you go along the river, it’s almost Jurassic, like it hasn’t been touched,” she says. “Two weeks ago, we were doing dinner up on this hill overlooking rapids. Then the mist rolled in, and we were in the middle of a cloud. It makes you think back 200 years, and appreciate your country on another level.”
Hiakai is an effort to change some of the stereotypes around the Māori, particularly the image of “a bunch of savages running around in the bush,” she explains. It's partly a reaction to her own experiences as a child of a Māori mother and a Samoan father. “To me, what’s important about doing these dinners is giving people a different perspective. Exploring these different aspects of history, understanding beyond ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We all live here. We’re one nation now, and the way to make it better is to understand each other.”
“My entire career plan was: get a Michelin star. I thought the way to do that was to make myself as white as possible,” she admits. “I didn’t think I’d ever be in a position where I’d be cooking this kind of food. I’m only 30, and it feels like it’s all going too fast. I never understand when people aren’t aware that this is all going to end someday. What if you haven’t done anything or made any sort of impact or improved anybody’s life?”
Maybe that’s why guests get a little weepy over a kanga wai (fermented corn) crème anglaise, or a kawakawa (a quintessential Māori herb known as bush basil) berry shrub alongside fresh snapper, or a horopito (a zingy leaf also known as Peppertree) salted caramel. It’s evidence that we last, well beyond a world we can imagine. We forget that looking at the stars, or at a person’s real face and not a digital version of it, feels good. We forget to enjoy our mortality.
In the end, Fiso came home to herself. Her food is a direct map of how to do the same.
“Pliers. Galvanized wire. Fire-proof gloves.
There’s so much about outdoor cooking you don’t realize until you’re in the thick of it. The wire is one of those things that always comes in handy, for hanging eels and different things. I constantly have one spool in my backpack and one on the truck—you never know. And shovels, and picks, I always need those really badly. We’re not going to be able to do a hāngi without those.
It’s funny because, at the same time, I can’t do service without my tweezers! There are still a lot of dainty things going on, even if they are being pulled up from the dirt. I’ll have all these hard-core things, but I’ll still need those damn tweezers when it comes time to plate different courses.”