Wellington restaurant Hiakai announces closure, citing a 'changing world' and 'right timing'

Split-screen of Hiakai co-owners with plate of oysters from Hiakai's menu
Hiakai announced on its social media on Tuesday that it would be officially shutting up shop in March. Photo credit: Hiakai / Facebook; @chefmomofiso / Instagram

A Wellington restaurant ranked among Time Magazine's 'World's Greatest Places' in 2019 will soon be closing its doors for the last time.   

Hiakai, situated in Wellington's Mount Cook, announced on its social media on Tuesday that it would be officially shutting up shop in March after eight years in business.   

The restaurant was initially opened as a pop-up in 2016 by its executive chef and co-owner Monique Fiso, who had recently returned to Aotearoa after seven years in New York City. The pop-up was designed to pay homage to Fiso's Māori-Samoan heritage, through the exploration of traditional Māori and Pasifika cooking techniques and ingredients. 

As per Time, Fiso initially found it difficult to source native ingredients on short notice, but her dedication eventually paid off. Two years later, Hiakai was opened as a permanent restaurant and quickly became an acclaimed establishment known both locally and internationally for its fresh approach to Māori cuisine. As a result, it has always been fully booked.  

In 2018, Fiso was one of 24 contestants - and the only New Zealander - to compete on Netflix's The Final Table, a cooking competition and reality TV show that saw her place seventh with Amninder Sandhu of India.  

In the post announcing Hiakai's closure, the team cited a changing world - and their landlord wanting to sell the building - as the reasons behind their decision. 

"The world has changed since those doors opened, and so have we. The landscape for owning a small business is incredibly tough and running a restaurant of this magnitude is all consuming. A passion project. Every single day we gave it everything we had and so did our team," the announcement stated.

"Now we are ready for change. At a time of unprecedented global food crises, we want to be part of the solutions. We care deeply about the systems, security and sovereignty of kai. The challenges we collectively face are monumental but not impossible.

"We have a wealth of ideas and projects that we want to bring to life. We have been working on these in the background while running the restaurant but we are ready to make them our primary focus. All of this coincides with our landlord wanting to sell the building - the timing is right."

The team added they will "truly miss the building and the whenua on which it stands", as well as its "rich tapestry of history".

"We are honoured to now be a part of that history.

"Our deepest gratitude is to our manuhiri, your support has been unwavering, and te ao Māori. Te ao Māori has been our greatest inspiration and guided our journey every step of the way."

Hiakai is fully booked until its final day in business, but if you have yet to dine there, hope is not lost. The team stressed there will be more "opportunities in the future", noting that Hiakai is "evolving, not coming to an end".

'My perspective has changed'

Fiso also shared her thoughts on Hiakai's closure in a lengthy message to her Instagram on Tuesday, noting she is no longer as passionate about "the finer side of dining".

"Hiakai began as a way for me to reclaim my whakapapa and independence through kai. As a young Māori-Samoan takatāpui wahine chef, I felt there was a massive lack of representation of my cultures and communities in the hospitality industry," she wrote.

"There have been incredible highs, lessons learnt, low moments and a huge amount of mahi. We also made some bomb ass kai across [23] menus.

"Over the years, my perspective has changed and my mindset has shifted. I'm not as passionate about the finer side of dining. Even though it has been an incredible training ground, the exclusivity of fine dining and the unsustainable nature of degustation menus no longer makes sense to me.

"I enjoy kai that is nourishing and a showcase of its local environment. Uncluttered and unfussy."

She noted she and her partner Katie Monteith, Hiakai's general manager and fellow co-owner, had been planning the transition "for a while".

"Katie and I knew 2024 was going to be a year of change for us. Time to chart a new course. We have so many exciting projects on the horizon.

"We are looking forward to spending more time with friends and whānau who have received very little of us while we devoted ourselves to the restaurant."