Kings and Queens of kai: Leading the Māori food revolution

Meet the innovative chefs spearheading New Zealand’s kai (food) revolution.

Meet the innovative chefs spearheading New Zealand’s kai revolution by incorporating Māori tradition and unique indigenous foods into their menus.

New Zealand cuisine is well celebrated in the hundreds of excellent restaurants and cafés found throughout the country. Recently, the influence of Māori tradition and indigenous kai (food) have been recognised as nationally recognised taonga (treasures), providing a point of difference that innovative cooks and chefs are proud to incorporate in their menus.

Monique Fiso, Wellington

Two years ago, innovative young chef Monique Fiso returned from New York City’s Michelin-starred The Musket Room to create Hiakai (hungry). Originally a pop-up series of events and now a permanent restaurant in Wellington dedicated to the development of Māori cooking techniques and ingredients. Fiso’s Māori and Samoan ancestors were great innovators of food and land, developing their own style of earth cookery (hāngi) and successfully adapting the indigenous flora and fauna for their meals. She leads the way in modernising these traditional foods with her exquisite fine-dining cuisine and is at the forefront of the Māori food revolution.

Rex Morgan, Wellington

One of the first chefs to bring his culinary heritage to the New Zealand table was Rex Morgan, an expert in French cooking techniques who adapted his style to include his personal experience of Māori influence and ingredients. He has been a hero chef on Māori Television, introduced indigenous ingredients to Air New Zealand’s business-class menus and is now the executive chef at Wellington’s popular Boulcott Street Bistro. Morgan adds the earthy, smoky flavours of traditional hāngi, and the native herbs horopito and kawakawa to some of the restaurant dishes. He will cook a menu with Māori influences by request. 

Sean Kereama, Palmerston North

Massey University has currently two marae (traditional Māori meeting grounds) under construction – in Wellington and at the main Turitea campus in Palmerston North. The university’s executive chef, Sean Kereama, will preside over the two new kitchens of these marae in addition to his current work at Wharerata, a beautiful turn-of-the-century homestead in the Turitea grounds, where there is a café catering to students, staff and visitors. Kereama, who has mastered a wide spectrum of international cuisines, is from a Māori/Malay Chinese background. And he’s not the only successful chef in his family – his brother, Jude, runs two restaurants in Cornwall, England, specialising in Māori-influenced fare. New Zealand wine dinners, matched to Kereama’s menu, are a specialty of the Wharerata calendar and open to all food and wine connoisseurs.

Rewi Spraggon aka The Hangi Master, Auckland

Hāngi master Rewi Spraggon believes you haven’t tasted Aotearoa until you’ve tasted proper hāngi food. This form of cooking can be traced back to the first Polynesian settlers landing in New Zealand hundreds of years ago. You can taste his hāngi tuturu, featuring chicken, pork, kumara (sweet potato), potato, cabbage and stuffing, at Maori Kitchen on Auckland’s Queens Wharf, where Spraggon has cleverly turned a mini skip into an earth oven, and from his Hangi Master trailer at Silo Park. 

Belinda and Jarrad Mckay, Auckland

Jarrad Mckay who, with wife Belinda, runs Auckland’s home of casual Māori kai (food), Pūhā & Pākehā. Every dish on their menu follows their kaupapa (policy) - taking elements of old school Māori kai and adding modern flavours. Make sure to try their hāngi-cooked dishes like the Māori twist on the classic Reuben Sandwich, as well as the deliciously genius Marmite and chocolate milkshake. Keep an eye out for their food truck when you are in Auckland.