Dining that’s more specific than Pacific
On Auckland’s new Samoan fine dining restaurant, ice cream shrinkflation and a spicy peach snack.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
It’s lunch time in the South Auckland suburb of Ōtāhuhu. More specifically, it’s lunchtime at Samoan eatery Polynesian Taste on Ōtāhuhu’s main drag, where I’m joined by Henry Onesemo (ex-Meredith’s, Apero and East St Hall) and Debby Onesemo, who are on the cusp of opening their first restaurant, Tala, dedicated to contemporary Samoan cuisine, in the site of the now-closed Parnell restaurant Pasture.
We’re exceptionally well-provisioned for lunch today – our table is bountiful with traditional Samoan fare: sapasui, palusami, kale moa, taro, and white plates piled with lamb and fried fish. Other lunch-goers trickle in and out with containers of kai or gather around tables for kai and conversation. Only adding to the atmosphere is the magnificently thunderous music playing from the nearby restaurant speakers.
Samoan eateries like this – open during the day and specialising in economically priced, traditional kai – aren’t necessarily a common feature all over Tāmaki Makaurau, but where they are concentrated, in the suburbs of West and South Auckland, they’re bustling institutions.
There’s a tendency to describe specific types of food like this or what will be served at Tala in more general terms like “Polynesian” or “Pacific”. And while some chefs find liberation in those unspecific definitions, Henry is unapologetic about the culinary specificity of Tala: it’s Samoan through and through.
“The goal was always to open a Samoan restaurant,” he says. “I just want Samoa to do its own thing and secondly, I want other Polynesian groups to do their own thing – imagine a Tongan restaurant, a Niuean restaurant, a Cook Island restaurant.”
And to him that specificity is political, both as a counter to the romanticised picture of the Pacific as a whole but also to counter the loss that goes hand in hand with cultural flattening. “There is a time to group us all together, but not every time,” he says. Taking ownership of what Samoan food means, and celebrating the distinctiveness, is in many ways a kind of culinary sovereignty.
Born in American Samoa, Henry grew up in Samoa and moved to the US as a 17-year-old where he worked as a Disney lūʻau dancer and in the military. Debby, who was born in Florida, was working as a lawyer when the two met. The husband and wife team shifted to Aotearoa almost a decade ago after a stint in Samoa where Henry trained as a chef. It was a meal at Samoan-born chef Michael Meredith’s trailblazing restaurant Meredith's, now closed, on a weekend trip to Auckland in 2014 that sparked the move. The pair had already envisioned opening a restaurant in Samoa but that meal changed everything. Immediately after the meal, Henry recalls, “I looked at [Debby], and she saw the look and knew straight away that we were gonna move to New Zealand.”
After writing to Michael Meredith following that transformative meal, Henry began working in the kitchen in 2014. Henry later worked at Apero on Karangahape Road and then spent time in Thailand at Michelin-starred Gaa in Bangkok. In 2019 he returned to New Zealand and to Karangahape Road to work as head chef at East St Hall. “Nobody says opening a restaurant is easy, but I feel like it's been easy for me to open up a restaurant because of what people have done before us,” he says. “I owe a lot of gratitude and respect to people like Michael [Meredith] that have come before me and who have carved that space out.”
This afternoon, the Onesemos are taking a break from the chaos of construction, choosing plates and cutlery, hiring and paperwork for what will be a modern, dimly lit space with 28 seats. And while the couple’s soon-to-be-opened restaurant and Polynesian Taste are intrinsically linked by the whakapapa of their food, they’re also worlds apart.
The couple held a series of sell-out pop-up dinners at central Auckland’s Bar Magda earlier this year where they workshopped these contemporary takes on Samoan cuisine that you’ll find on the menu at Tala – like a brined and spatchcocked chicken wrapped in banana leaves with herbs and citrus cooked in the hot stones of the umu; a dish inspired by childhood snacks of raw ramen, taro and banana chips; and an abstracted take on Wattie’s Mixed Veg.
Henry points to our now half-eaten bowl of sapasui on the table – a tangle of extremely savoury vermicelli pearled with vegetables and hunks of pork akin to chop suey – and opens a photo on his phone of his interpretation of the dish he grew up with. Visually, it’s exquisite, with a dusting of herbs, mint, coriander, parsley, lemon juice, garlic – “almost like a verde” – and puffed grains as a nod to the familiar texture of cartilage he grew up with. For anyone well-versed in fine-dining, the plate will look rather unsurprising, for anyone who grew up feasting on sapasui at home, Henry’s version might look sacrilegious. Those are the tensions that come with representing a food less familiar to the mainstream, and the expectations of those whose culture is intertwined with the food. But to Henry, “this is about telling a version of a story of what Samoan food could be.”
And Henry doesn’t shy away from the potential accusations of pretension. “The look of the food is pretentious,” he says. “And purposefully so – pretension helps things grow.”
Tala opens early November at 235 Parnell Road .
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When Tip Top announced that Goody Goody Gum Drops and Cookies & Cream would be discontinued last year due to “significant cost pressures” on milk and cream, ice cream fans were outraged. On the other hand, then-immigration minister Michael Wood tweeted at the time that the flavour was “a blight on western civilisation”. Now, the company has announced a comeback for the flavours…but in 40% smaller tubs and at almost twice the price they were a year ago. Shrinkflation, baby!
Salad is inseparable from Paul Newman’s friendly face. The late-Hollywood actor’s Newman’s Own dressing range has been a constant in fridges worldwide – including my family – since the 90s. But last year, without warning, they vanished from local supermarket shelves. I wrote about their disappearance at the time, and was told by major supermarkets that it was due to shipping issues which they hoped would be resolved by summer. Summer came and went, and this relentlessly bad year continued on sans Newman's famous dressings. The Newman’s Own company actually sent me a box from their headquarters in California in solidarity, and some lovely readers and acquaintances have even brought back bottles from overseas for my collection, so I’ve been well-stocked. Still, I lost all hope of ever seeing them again. Well, I finally have good news: on a recent trip to Countdown, the dressing, albeit with new (less-cool) packaging, was back where it belongs: in the dressing aisle.
While this week brings good news for ice cream and salad enthusiasts, spare a thought for Wattie’s creamed corn fans who won’t be able to eat the stuff till at least March next year. A Wattie's spokesperson told 1News that the product is currently off supermarket shelves due to supply issues following Cyclone Gabrielle.
As the horrors of the Israel-Palestine conflict rage on this week, I can’t help but think about this episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. If you’ve not seen it before, I implore you to watch it. If you have watched it before, I recommend a rewatch. I still recall the impact the episode had on me at the time it first aired, especially for the way it demonstrated the power of food as a tool for storytelling and for humanising people who are rarely afforded that most basic right.
The weekly snack
Snak Club Tajin chilli and lime peach rings, $3.50 from Martha’s Backyard: I was so not into these on my first go. And for those unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of Mexican candy – which often weave together vigorous threads of salty, sour, spicy and sweet – these, which are not actually Mexican, but are certainly inspired by the country’s lollies, will seem quite astonishing at first. Yet, the more I ate, the more I found myself on board with their uniqueness. Essentially, they’re a peach gummy, which resembles the peach rings you’d buy from the dairy, but in practice, actually seemed more like a bona fide piece of dried fruit. Each peachy halo is encrusted generously in the salty, spicy tang of Tajin – an omnipresent (in Mexico) spice powder of ground dried chilli, sea salt and dehydrated lime that is unrestrained by any segregation between sweet and savoury. I was shocked to learn that this packet was the “mild” version of the gummies too – they’re actually surprisingly spicy, which makes them a real thrill to snack on. I’ll always endorse investing in actual Mexican candy if you can afford to – although it can be expensive to buy in Aotearoa. And so while it feels sacrilegious and maybe quite problematic to suggest that these sweets (made in the US) would make a great entryway into the peculiarities of Mexican candy if you’ve not delved in before – I genuinely think a packet (at just $3.50) would be a great way to familiarise yourself before making a splurge. 9/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte