A life of kai: Joe McLeod’s mission to revive Māori foods and cooking methods

by | Sep 8, 2022 | Opinion

Handmade Tales: In the first of series about artisan makers, Doris Neubauer meets the host of Māori TV’s World on a Plate.


With leaves of pohuehue, karaka, hangehange, and even rewarewa on the table, the kitchen in Peter Gordon’s Homeland cooking school in Auckland looks as lush as a garden. Hamuera Orupe McLeod (commonly known as Joe McLeod) spent four hours of foraging this morning. “I found not what I wanted, but what I needed”, the Kārori chef (Ngai Tūhoe), who grew up in Te Urewera in the 1950s, smiles and welcomes everyone with a hug.

With about 25 people gathering for his cooking show, he has a lot of hugging to do. McLeod, dressed in his customary beret, seems to enjoy it as much as teaching about Māori food and cooking methods. Today’s focus is on steaming salmon in a hāngī pot. First, he fills the bottom of a tray with water. To keep the fish out of water and allow the steam to travel, the ferns and foraged leaves come into action: “We call it Māori insulation”, the 64-year-old jokes while putting six tiers of fern around the salmon. “The reason for using these plants is that they are connected to our rivers and oceans. The flavours from the fish are drawn up through the ferns. Only a hāngī can get the flavours out. The ferns give back to the fish the unique papakāinga and whakapapa.”

Joe wraps it in a cloth and pulls all of it together with flax strings “to trap the goodness where it belongs – in the dish.”


Home is where the kai is

To “revive, preserve, and promote” traditional Māori foods and cooking methods has been Joe McLeod’s mission since 2014. After almost 50 years of cooking in kitchens such as the Ritz in Paris, including preparing dinners for high end diplomats, royal families and heads of states, he returned to Aotearoa to host the TV series World on a Plate on Māori TV. Then he got involved in indigenous food organisations.

“Their role was around planting Māori food, not cooking it and that’s where I saw an opportunity: this is a vehicle where I can give back to my country,my community, and my people, to Māori”. With permission of his people, he started sharing the knowledge he was taught in his childhood from his elders, researching, and rediscovering traditional Māori foods and cooking methods.

“The country was starting to get interested, Matariki was taking off and Maramataka  (Māori lunar calendar) started to take off but it wasn’t gaining any attraction until five years ago. Until Covid really, then it went viral.”

Despite the gaining interest from pākehā as well, presentations like the one in Homeland remain a rare occasion. For Joe McLeod, they are just an introduction, giving notice to people that the indigenous culture of Aotearoa is very much alive. His focus lies on bringing his own people back to their roots. “The priority now is to reconnect our old food knowledge to the marae, – I am not interested in everybody else.” The western fast-food diet is bad for his people, creating obesity, diabetes and other ailments. “They are crying for reconnection”.



McLeod and Gordon were recently recognised by the New Zealand Chefs Association for their contribution to the New Zealand, and particularly Māori food story. “So many people want to know, it would take me three life times”, McLeod says, “the best way now is to digitise everything.”

To preserve the knowledge for future generations, he is working on an almanac of all the herbs as part of his Masters degree in the revival, preservation and promotion of traditional Māori culinary culture at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in Whakatane. For his PhD, that he wants to finish by the time he turns 70, he’s working on another paper asking if there is room for the commercialisation of Māori food. “The answer is yes, there is. Go for it”, he says.

Like pizza to Italy

Making Māori food commercially accessible, is the ultimate goal for the passionate chef. “My vision is to sell it to the world.” Māori food should be to New Zealand what pizza is to Italy. He is aware it will take time: “We are still at the Stone Age and progressing through the industrial revolution. Before we can open restaurants, we need our resource base – consistently and with quality. We do not have that yet. These native plants are not available. They are locked up in legislation and on private land. You cannot get them.”

For McLeod, the challenges are no reason to give up. With every Wananga, every presentation, every business dinner, he is spreading the idea.

“Congratulations, you are 100% Māori cooks”, he says, putting a smile on the faces of the participants one last time. Who doesn’t love a story of revival and rediscovery. The delicious salmon helps too.

Copy and images by Doris Neubauer

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