Henry Onesemo’s isn’t the story of the young boy from the Pacific who dreamed of being a chef while cooking at his mother’s side. Instead, it’s a tale of serendipitous events and defining culinary experiences that have all led to Tala, the beautiful Auckland restaurant specialising in modern Samoan food, just opened by Henry and his wife Debby.

“Cooking as a career was never something that entered my mind. In Samoa, cooking is servitude and actually my first memories of cooking weren’t that pleasant,” laughs Henry. “It was something you had to do, rather than wanted to do.” Leaving Samoa at age 17, he served for six years in the Hawaii Air National Guard and went on to work as a dancer at Disney World in Orlando before even getting his first taste of commercial-kitchen life. “To supplement my salary I worked in an Italian restaurant. I didn’t really realise cooking was something you could make money out of, but after just one day there I became aware there were people making a killing out of flour, water and egg, and rice, too! I couldn’t believe it.”

Henry had romantic dreams of opening a pasta restaurant in Samoa, but his mum insisted he get some culinary training first. And it was in New Zealand that he got an insight into high-end restaurant life. “This was definitely another key moment for me,” he says. “I ate at Meredith’s and had things I’d never seen, such as beetroot meringue with duck liver parfait. Then I saw the chef [Michael Meredith] and couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘What? He’s got tattoos, he’s brown – this is the guy who does this?’” At this point, the young trainee realised this could be his future, too – if he gained the skills.

So he did a stage at Meredith’s and, over a number of years, worked at Apéro, Tanuki’s Cave and many others. His experience at Peter Gordon’s The Sugar Club provided another ah-ha moment. “I was shocked at how bold the flavours were. It made me more secure in the idea of doing Samoan food one day.” The final reinforcement came when he worked at Gaa in Bangkok, where traditional Indian food came with a Michelin-starred setting. “It was fascinating and beautiful learning from Garima [Arora]. She was staying so true to her culture and that made me realise I could, too.”

And so he has, first launching pop-ups of the Tala concept before finally opening the doors to his and Debby’s dream in November. And all those important moments have given him the confidence to stay true to his roots. “I think sometimes Polynesian chefs think they have to plate Euro-style, but that’s not really how we eat back home. Oka should have taro, some cooked fish, a piece of pork and some sapasui all on the one plate. We’ve tried to recreate something of that feasting- type menu with what we are doing.” The Tala team offers a ‘Chef’s Journey’ where guests are seated at the counter for direct views of the chefs preparing their multi-course meal (amazingly including umu-style chicken from beginning to end). There’s also The ‘Fāgogo Journey’, a slightly shorter menu with diners seated in the main restaurant. Traditional aspects of Samoan life – such as receiving an offering upon arrival and taking part in a traditional handwashing ceremony – are all part of the experience.

Sometimes you have to leave something that seems like part of everyday life to understand how beautiful it is. And Henry definitely realises now that all those Sunday mornings watching his Dad haggle at the fish markets and all the prep that the kids had to do for the weekly umu were actually a treasure; a treasure he’s now able to share with others to give them a special peek into his culture. ALEXIA SANTAMARIA