Monique Fiso: The taste of New Zealand you can't find in New York

Monique Fiso
The Kiwi chef says the humble kumara is one of the ingredients she missed most. Photo credit: Supplied

New York seems like a place where you can get your hands on any food you want. But for New Zealand chef Monique Fiso, seven years in the city that never sleeps had her deeply missing two flavours of home: green lipped mussels and the humble kumara.

"Kumara is a staple that people take for granted," Fiso told Newshub. "You go overseas and they think it's the same as sweet potato but it's not. It's this water-logged thing. Kumara is fluffier and tastier in every single way."

The root vegetable could be seen as a metaphor for home. "I think sometimes Kiwis go 'oh that old thing' and it's not. These are things that we should highlight and appreciate - you can't get them over in NYC and they're way better."

Fiso also said she missed green lipped mussels - that's right, the one you get from your local New World.

"Whatever mussels they throw at you overseas are these little, flavourless things. Here these amazing green lipped mussels are everywhere and they're amazing. These are the sorts of ingredients I was like, finally I can work with this again. 

"I think when you've gone and you come back you appreciate things more."

It's only appropriate then that her segment in this year's Auckland Food Show is called 'The Humble Kumara', with a promise to 'take the humble kumara, garnish it, serve it with delicious sides and show you how to take your hāngi to the next level.'

The Māori-Samoan chef has been in the kitchen since she was 14. She worked for Wellington chef Martin Bosely following her hospitality studies, before her desire to be a part of "the Michelin scene" taking her to New York. There she slugged it out for a hefty seven years, firstly at Michelin-starred restaurant Public and eventually at Kiwi-owned The Musket Room.

She has come back to New Zealand with a host of knowledge in her back pocket and the exhaustion of having worked her arse off.

"It was just like this slow grind of working seven and a half years, 100 hour weeks - I was burnt out," Fiso revealed. "I needed a break and you're just never going to get time to think in New York. I remember it was my 28th birthday and I was standing on the street outside Musket Room and I thought, 'now is the time'."

 In 2016 she returned to New Zealand full time and began the pop-up dining series Hiakai, devoted to the exploration and development of Māori cooking techniques and ingredients.

"It's been around for about two years now and it's interesting the impact it's had on the industry in a short time," Fiso reflects.

"More restaurants are using Māori ingredients now, not just as a random garnish to be quirky but actually heroing it. It's been a wild ride."

If you think of Māori cooking methods as only the family hāngi on the weekend, Fiso is here to shake things up.

"I wasn't going to do a hāngi and just put some potatoes and pork down there and call it a day," she says. "I was thinking, 'What else is cooked in that method in the pit that would be different?'

"Rice pudding for example. You put rice pudding down there and you've got the right amount of steam and this smoky earthy flavour in the background."

For those going along to see Fiso speak at the Food Show, her advice is to "watch the demo and ask some questions". 

"I think some people who go up on stage are more entertainers, whereas I like to talk through what I'm doing. I like to talk about the why - everything has a why."

Catch Fiso at the Auckland Food Show 26-29 Jul, 10am-5pm, ASB Showground. Tickets can be bought here



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