Reimagining the taste of Aotearoa

Photography Sarah Tuck

The head chef bringing Māori roots to restaurant plates.

Tucked within the historical walls of what was once a nunnery is restaurant Ada, which is now entering a new chapter championing Aotearoa’s cuisine.

With locally sourced ingredients, traditional Māori cooking methods, and a team filled with aroha, newly appointed head chef Kia Kanuta is paving the way for Māori restaurant representation.

Tell us about your story coming into the food scene.

It’s a bit of a long story, I’ve always loved food. Cooking, gathering and how it brings people together.

I spent countless hours with Mum, Nan and Aunty Ju in the kitchen as a kid. I was always kind of obsessed with how food is our fuel, how it comes from light and water and how everything needs to eat to live.

I dropped out of school at 15 and got a job washing dishes at the Avondale RSA to help out with the bills at home.

I think the passion I’ve always had for food plus the necessity of having to work just kind of created a chef.

Then yeah, just grinding and learning lessons as I went helped me develop the skills I needed to make my vision for kai come to light.

How has your inclusion of traditional Māori cooking methods evolved?

That’s a great question, I’m not the expert on this but I can speak on how I’ve personally developed methods from Te Ao Māori so it made sense to me.

Firstly, stove-top hāngī. This version or method came about in my whānau from living in the city, in places where we weren’t allowed to dig a pit or there just simply wasn’t a backyard to dig. We adapt. We did it on top of the stove to start, then in the oven.

We still used wood chips (mānuka), we still had stones, we used wire baskets and still wrapped in cabbage leaves. Instead of sacks and dirt we topped it with wet tea towels and the pot lid.

We just kind of had to make do and this method is pretty common where I’m from.

What’s your process for developing new dishes?

Umm well it’s funny… so firstly everything I work on these days is all based off my childhood.

For example, when I need to create new desserts, I think about three things.

  1. What’s in season, what’s affordable, real and sustainable for the next few months.
  2. What or why does it mean (if anything) to me. So, I really only cook what I liked eating as a kid. I try to reimagine something simple and go from there.
  3. There’s the 80/20 or the 70/30 rule. Seventy per cent of the menu should feel familiar to your guests and 30 per cent is where the chefs get to play around, introduce new ideas to push our guests’ palates and create new experiences.

Honestly though, sometimes I’ll have a dream of something cool and work to recreate that.

What’s your favourite dish on the new menu?

Oh that’s easy, it’s the Chocolate Bar, hands down.

My good friend Tom at Ao Cacao and I spent hours just talking about kai, whānau and the future ideas, where we see the food industry going and what we think might be ahead for Māori within the industry. By the end of the kōrero, I knew we needed to make something together.

I have always wanted to work with chocolate but unfortunately (for me) I’m made for the hot line. There’s no way without Tom that I’d have something this special and meaningful to me and my love for chocolate to close my menu.

Can you share some stories about what inspired some of your favourite dishes?

The first one that comes to mind would be the whole fish. It’s a technique I learnt at Cafe Hanoi about 14 years ago, from an era that really formed the kind of chef I am today.

I’ve had surgery to remove a fish spine from the tip of my finger preparing this dish as well!

Growing up, Dad would often be the first one up and in the kitchen making himself breakfast. It was usually just something reheated from the night before. He was a pretty classic Māori man, wasted next to nothing and ate basically everything.

The memories that stand out most aren’t always the nice ones. I distinctly remember an autumn morning, tiptoeing into a misty kitchen and being punched in the face by a cloud of steamed fish heads and boiled onions. My dad, proudly sitting at the head of the dinner table with a loaf of rēwana and a block of butter.

I made my toast and sat down with him having Marmite, my usual fave. All I could smell as I ate my toast was fish heads.

It’s funny what you miss after people pass away. This dish is me turning childhood hōhā into aroha.

I can’t share the dinner table with Dad again, but I can turn a memory into something special for other people to share with their loved ones.

The whole fish is designed to share in more ways than one.

What is your vision with the new menu and what experience are you hoping to give people?

My vision has always been about connecting people to kai. All the dishes at Ada have an element where you share or should use your hands. I wanted to make the food I ate growing up cool. I want for my friends and whānau that grew up in a similar way to recognise dishes on a menu with passion, in the same way an Italian might recognise a gnocchi dish from their nonna.

I wanted to answer the question “Where’s a restaurant that does Māori food?” And to give my guests an insight to what it was like growing up in Aotearoa in the 90s.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

One thing I would like to share is what I’m hoping will happen in the future of the hospitality industry. I hoping to see more consistent Māori restaurant representation.

I hope that what I’m doing sparks something in the next generation to cook from their backgrounds and heritage. And if you see me in the kitchen, come say hello.

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