The Samoan chef serving Pacific food at one of Auckland’s top restaurants
Uelese Mua went from washing dishes to now dishing up some of the finest foods at one of Auckland’s award-winning restaurants, Euro. John Pulu went along to sample one of the Pacific dishes that is soon to be on the menu.
At age 15, Uelese Mua, also known as ‘Wallace’, worked as a kitchen hand at the Hilton hotel to earn some pocket money so he could go on school rugby trips.
“After every game I would rush off to the kitchen and basically wash dishes. The funny thing was when I’d get there, the chefs would give me a lot of their jobs, a lot of their cutting jobs, and I started to get really interested in it,” Uelese says.
That was the beginning of his culinary journey. The young Samoan from Mount Roskill, Auckland was keen to learn more about food, and so he took on more work in restaurants and other eating establishments. In 2011 he made a decision to head to France with his girlfriend where he continued to hone his craft
“Everyone always asks me if I went to France to cook, but the true answer is I followed a girl there. But it’s all good; we came back with a boy. He’s the light of my life,” says Uelese.
Now 32 years old, Uelese says being a chef is about more than just putting food on the table.
“I still feel like there’s so much work to do, there’s still so much hard work,” he says.
“It’s not like a painting where you paint something and it’s there forever; you do one dish and it’s a continuous strive for excellence every single day.”
His cooking caught the taste buds of celebrity chef Gareth Stewart, who was dining at a restaurant where Uelese was the chef.
“I wanted to compliment the chef, who was a young guy at the time, Wallace, and so I spoke to the owner. This little guy turns up, and I offered him a bit of work experience,” Stewart says.
“I knew that he obviously had a bit of passion, and I love to harness that passion and help chefs progress in this industry.”
Gareth is the executive chef of Euro Bar & Restaurant at Auckland’s viaduct harbour, and he invited Uelese to join his team as the head chef.
“I think it’s really important that a head chef actually adopts the kitchen as their own,” Stewart says.
“I am here just to do a little bit of guidance and inspiration. But I really like the fact that there’s that Samoan touch to it, you know, because when you cook from your native food, you cook from your heart, and it’s always going to taste better.”
Uelese has been cooking for almost 20 year now, and he’s excited to share Euro’s new autumn dishes that are from the Moana, Māra – the garden – and whenua, the land.
“It’s nice to have something that you can call your own and contribute to this growing culinary scene that we have in Auckland,” he says.
And his advice for anyone thinking about going into cooking? “Don’t try and be a head chef at your Mum’s kitchen, because you’ll end up getting kicked out.”
By John Pulu