Formerly head chef at waterfront restaurants Euro and Fish, Uelese (Wallace) Mua is right at home downtown. With a background working in a range of hotel and independent restaurants in New Zealand and France, he brings a wealth of experience to kingi's kitchen as the new chef de cuisine, working alongside kingi co-founder Tom Hishon, as well as an approach to food that's grounded in Pacific multi-culturalism.
Melinda Williams: How did first you get into cheffing?
Uelese Mua: It's funny. I started off as a kitchen hand. The chefs used to give me their jobs, like "Cut this, chop this." So I slowly started to learn all these little skills. And then I just decided, ‘I'll go for a cheffing job. I never know what could happen.’ So, I saw a role, I went in, and I was a bit clueless about what I was talking about. But the lovely lady there hired me and she basically said it was because I sat there smiling the whole time. I've just been really lucky along the way to find good teachers, good mentors. My wife, she's from France, so that was a good way of getting over to France. I ended up staying there for six years and learned a lot about cooking over there. I think it's a mixture of hard work and a bit of luck.
MW: Where were you working in France?
UM: The first time I went I had a working holiday visa, so I could only work three months at certain places. I spent most of them at hotels; one was the Sofitel in Marseilles and then the Radisson Blu. It wasn't until my second visit that I got a phone call from a kitchen hand I worked with for about three weeks, who invited me down to this bohemian area in Marseilles. He was telling me that he wanted to open a new restaurant. When he said that, I said, "Okay, before I answer, I want us to go for a walk." So we went for a walk around the area and I would stop at every restaurant we passed and we would look at the menu. When we got back, I said, "Look, there's about 20 restaurants we passed. They're all doing the same French style food. I propose that we do something different." It took a little bit to convince him, but at the end of the day he was really convinced. And then that place grew. We did about 17 covers that first day, just me and him. The next day we did 33 for lunch. And then after that, it was just constantly over 100 covers for lunch. It was crazy, but it was fun.
MW: How would you describe food you were doing there?
UM: I wasn't doing any really particular style. Because I came from New Zealand, where we're so multicultural and it's so diverse, there's so many cultures, as a chef, that works out beautifully. You work with a multicultural team, and you learn a little bit of their styles. I think that as a New Zealander, I learned a lot of different cultural aspects and different foods and that kind of gave me a little bit of advantage over in France, where they were much more restricted in what they were taught. And that's a beautiful thing. They learn everything so loyally and they're really strong chefs because they have a really good foundation.
MW: That legendary French technique!
UM: Yeah. But that creativity part, I think that's kind of what's helped the rest of the world advance a bit more in regard to food.
MW: You have Samoan heritage… Does that play into how you cook?
UM: Definitely. Samoan food, Polynesian food, is actually quite simple. It can be quite bland, to be honest. So I guess what I found really challenging was trying to recreate a Samoan dish, but then adding a little bit extra, but not losing the essence of it being a Samoan dish. I think I've built up a little bit of a profile for being able to do that. I use a lot of coconut cream, a lot of fish, a lot of kumara, a lot of taro, wherever I can fit it in there.
MW: The butter fish curry that you've got in the restaurant is based on one from your family, right?
UM: Yeah. My mom used to make this curry and it's not exactly the same. Her one, it's a bit dry. But I remember one day she added tomatoes into it, just out of necessity. And when I tasted it, I asked her, "Could you do it like that next time?" And so it was kind of what she always did. I actually used that on my trial, that butter fish curry. When we started looking at the menu change, it was in my mind that I really wanted to do that sauce on there just as an homage to her, but also the fact that I know that people love it. How would you say it? It's not in your face. You'd think it is when you see the dish, but actually it's quite easy to eat.
MW: Have you got any other specialties you'd like to add to the menu?
UM: Definitely. We did a Black Estate Wine dinner recently and Tom [Hishon] asked me, "Do you have any other raw fish dish we could do instead of the tuna tartare?" So I was like, "Yeah, I've got this dish that I'd like to try for that and I think it would match the wines really well." It's basically my version of what we call an oka, a raw fish dish. We got really good feedback from it, so I think that's going onto the next menu.
MW: How do you find working with kind of the current menu? Because it's quite a little bit out there in terms of some of the menus around town and especially for a restaurant in a hotel.
UM: Back about three years ago, I played with cod wings and in my mind I was thinking, "Man, these are awesome." But I didn't have the guts to put them on the menu. And then when I came here, they were doing cod wings and I really liked that they had no fear just to give it a go. The other thing I like is that the ingredients are of such quality that the food is really simple. You don't have to mess with the ingredients too much, just champion the key components in your dishes.
MW: Do you think people are becoming more confident in returning to dining out?
UM: I think so. In the hospitality industry, we see a quiet week and then a busy weekend. Before COVID, it was a bit more even. I think what a lot of are seeing, is that the business has started to pick up, but we're still lacking a bit of the help that we had before. For example, I used to have three trainee chefs and they used to make up half of my roster and now we don't have that. Before COVID, every time you would go to a restaurant, you were definitely going to be served by a foreigner. Nowadays you'll get a Kiwi, but not many young Kiwis want to go into hospitality. I think we’ve got to show them that it's not as bad as they think it is. Some hours may be long, but what I love about working at kingi is that I've gotten a much better balance in home life and work life.
MW: What do you think needs to happen for the hospitality industry to start attracting more young people?
UM: I think we need to show more than the bad side of hospitality and the stress that you see on television. For example, I could probably never work in the office. I'm just not made that way. I think people need to see that hospitality can be fun. It's not just about long hours and getting yelled at by the chef. It's actually the camaraderie that you create, the bond that you make with people and just seeing people happy. And not long ago, I was talking to someone about what it's like to be an artist. I've always been into performing arts, I was always into my music. I was always into painting, but I said to them, "I didn't have the courage to become an artist like that.” I had to ensure I had a steady pay, and cheffing provided me that, week in, week out. But it also gave me the creative side where you could express yourself in artistic way through your dishes. The only thing is dishes don’t last as long as an artwork.
MW: But on the other hand, you get to see the immediate gratification of the people enjoying what you've created, which you can be sometimes quite removed from as an artist.
UM: Yeah, that's true. I didn't think of that before, but that's true.