28 June 2021
28 June 2021
Uelese (Wallace) Mua wasn’t expecting his life to change at age 15 – he was simply cleaning hotel rooms at the Hilton Auckland for travel money. He had a trip planned to Australia’s Gold Coast to play in a rugby tournament and the housekeeping shifts were bankrolling his flights.
“I had no experience, so my job was to get into all the rooms before the housekeepers would get into the room. I’d strip all the linen in the room and put it in the trolley and then rush off to the next room,” he says. But in 2003, he ran into some famous guests: the English rugby team, fresh off their World Cup win in Australia.
“Because I was the first one in the room, I would still meet some of the players and they would all give me their rugby gear. For a long time, I had a lot of English rugby gear!” he says and laughs.
Meeting sports stars was a nice upside to Mua’s job, but it didn’t set him on a path to a cooking career. The hotel’s work roster did, sending him into the kitchen for dishwashing shifts.
Mua was “amazed” watching the chefs work: the superhuman speed of their multitasking reflexes – a blur of chopping, pot-stirring, pulling open drawers and containers for ingredients, tending to frypans and then moving on to the next order.
When Mua returned to the Hilton 14 years later, as its executive chef, “it brought back a lot of memories”, he says.
The chef’s original plans to become a rugby player had been derailed by his early days in the kitchen. “Basically when I started cheffing, all sports went out the window.”
But his athletic schedule wasn’t entirely forgotten. “I would wake up at 4am every morning and run to work. Because it was the only time I could get some fitness in,” he says.
The chef was pretty busy redoing the hotel’s banquet, bar and room menus. He also took over the flagship restaurant Fish. Here, the chef produced his own version of bouillabaisse – “something I learnt in France” – by adding fiery Korean spices to the fish stew.
His time in France was important in many ways – it’s where his wife Anaïs is from – but it also taught him invaluable cooking lessons.
While at a Marseilles beach, he had an “awakening” while eating a Caprese salad. “I thought, ‘man, I’ve been putting it on the plate and serving it in New Zealand for years and it’s only now that I’m finally understanding what it does to the person that’s eating it’.”
It taught him that the immediate landscape and a community’s local dining culture – “their loyalty to their style of food” – are key to a dish.
At Euro, the exclusive waterfront dining institution where Mua is now head chef, the surrounding landscape and local community have a strong influence on the menu.
The restaurant has ditched its white tablecloths and now operates as a canvas to showcase Pasifika and Māori culture – with the kitchen collaborating with a different Polynesian artist every season. Recently, Indigenous artist Hōhua Ropate Kurene inspired Mua’s autumn menu – a move that’s resonating with locals who are looking for representation of their culture. “I’m definitely noticing more Polynesians in the restaurant now,” the chef says.
Mua’s Samoan heritage also influences the food. “You know how the French eat bread with every meal?” he says. “Us Polynesians, we eat taro with almost every meal.” It’s why the starchy root vegetable plays a key role on the menu: he serves his trevally ceviche on taro ‘bark’, which has been dehydrated and deep-fried. “When I was testing it, it tasted like my mum’s,” he says. But he added a compressed mango hit, a tart touch of yuzu and a jolt of chardonnay vinegar to give the dish “extra zing”. Was the chef nervous about his mother trying his version? Not at all. In fact his mum ended up enjoying it on Mother’s Day.
She’s influenced the menu in other ways. “I went over to my mum’s house and she was making [South Pacific chocolate drink] koko Samoa,” he says. “It’s like our version of Milo.” He ended up grating it over a crostata dish he’d been experimenting with: it gives the dessert a long-lasting chocolate hit.
Euro’s menu is also inspired by moana (seafood), māra (garden) and whenua (land); it draws on coastal flavours, raw seafood and the way his ancestors ate. “We hunted off the sea, we hunted off the land. It was a sustainable way of eating,” he says. “That’s what I want to get back to.”
Euro is part of a wave of restaurants embracing the culinary heritage of its team. “It’s something that’s been happening for a while now and people are starting to embrace their own identity, their own culture. It’s what makes us all unique,” he says. “Everyone should be proud of where they’re from and what they represent.”
That’s clearly the case for Mua, whether he’s cooking a kumara dish with coconut cream (just as his mum did), or contributing to a play that features an onstage battle between the gods of the land and sea, or celebrating his heritage at Euro – a restaurant he’s wanted to work at since he was a kitchen hand. Rugby’s loss is our gain.
By Lee Tran Lam