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Talented Tongan chef returns to SkyCity ahead of re-opening of top restaurant

Mary Afemata

Meet the Pasifika chef behind top steak restaurant The Grill

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

One of Auckland’s most popular restaurants is reopening in the city; with a talented Pasifika chef set to make his mark at the helm.

Touvai “Tee” Poloniati is the new executive chef who will top steak restaurant The Grill, which is making a return after closing in early 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The restaurant will be within SkyCity’s newest 5-star hotel - Horizon by SkyCity - which will have 303 rooms that include premium suites to the Auckland precinct. It is due to open in early March.

It is a full-circle moment for Poloniati; who completed his chef apprenticeship at SkyCity when he was a teenager with big dreams.

When he was 13, his parents supported him and under their supervision, he was able to get work experience, train and work for free in some hotels in South Auckland.

“It kind of opened my eyes and I met people [who] gave me opportunities to travel. I thought cheffing was for old people because you see on TV - it’s just old white men in white chef jackets.”

Bringing the concept of māfana to the table

He would learn that there were a lot of young people in the industry and was inspired to be the first young Polynesian chef.

Older and wiser now, he is keen to bring some Tongan culture to the table, by injecting what he describes as māfana to his dishes.

Māfana is a Tongan concept of a warm feeling and for the young chef, that warmth is what he tries to do in all his cooking.

“It is a a feeling of comfort plus taste as well - but obviously in a different setting,” he says.

Executive Chef Touvai Poloniati plating up the seafood tower dish. Photo / SkyCity

He describes how his love for food started as a boy helping to cook a traditional umu every Sunday and indulging in Polynesian and Tongan dishes, in particular.

“The feeling that I get from eating that food - which is my favourite - is how I cook and try to extract out of, with new ingredients.

“I try to get that feeling that I get from lū sipi (lamb and coconut cream baked in taro leaves) and manioke (cassava) from using ingredients that have nothing to do with the Islands - if that makes sense.”

A beast in the kitchen

Poloniati considers himself to be a naturally reserved and shy person - but not in the kitchen.

“I don’t shy away if someone asks me to do something. In the kitchen, I feel really comfortable. It’s easy for me to control stuff and take the lead.”

Poloniati’s career has seen him work in Hong Kong, Australia and Canada, exploring his culinary practice.

Being exposed to different gourmet techniques, flavours and styles throughout his travels has influenced his cooking.

As a tribute to Aotearoa’s culinary wonders, The Grill will use ingredients sourced locally from artisanal, fishing, and farming families dedicated to exceptional standards.

Diners can expect food of the highest quality such as grass-fed steaks, sourced exclusively from New Zealand-based companies. In addition, line-caught fish that is environmentally sustainable.

The Menu includes classics like beef Wellington, mac ‘n cheese and miso hollandaise, as well as table-side dishes like Wapiti Venison Tartare and a caesar salad.

“The menu has been carefully curated to honour the exceptional producers, purveyors, farmers, and fisheries who are proud to be championing ethical practices from both our land and sea,” says Poloniati.

Executive Chef Touvai Poloniati about to cut into one of the classics available on The Grill's menu, beef Wellington. Photo / SkyCity

The Grill has arguably been Auckland’s best steak restaurant since it opened its doors on Federal Street in 2011.

David Allott, General Manager of Hospitality at SkyCity says customers have eagerly been awaiting for The Grill to return.

“Since we closed the doors during Covid-19, I’ve had almost constant emails asking when The Grill will be returning – “I’m glad to say the time has come”.

The Grill will open within the Horizon by SkyCity hotel next to the soon-to-be-completed New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC) on Hobson Street.

Poloniati joins SkyCity as the second Pacific chef to their succinct after Michael Meredith’s restaurant Metitia opened last year in October. Poloniati has worked with Meredith previously and says he has been someone he looked up to for most of his career.

Two Pacific chefs share their culinary expertise, elevating the fine dining experience for customers with Polynesian flavour.

Hero image: The Grill opens in March 2024 with it's new executive chef Touvai Poloniati Photo / SkyCity

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