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Hemi Tahu – A Local Talent Amongst Wellington’s Culinary Scene

Hemi Tahu, 13 November 1969 – 9 December 2022.

Award winning chef Hemi Tahu had worked alongside some of the best in the business and had won numerous industry awards including Chef of the Nation and Chef of the Capital and was recognised as an innovator. His illustrious career spanned more than 30 years and included working in top London restaurants, hotels, luxury lodges, several Wellington restaurants and opening his own restaurant. He cooked for various New Zealand Prime Ministers and notable celebrities. When he passed, he was working as resident chef for the deputy US Ambassador in Wellington.

Hemi grew up in Omori (on the eastern shores of Lake Taupo). His grandfather owned a farm in Omori and taught him to live off the land. He and his father taught him to catch and smoke trout, and he learnt deer stalking and pig hunting with his uncles. Being Ngati Tuwharetoa, he had the privilege of hunting koura with hand nets on full moon nights. His interest in food stems from those early years.

He was a talented rugby player, captaining the First XV at Tongariro High School and also captain of the King Country secondary schools’ team that went to Australia for the Australia bi-centenary rugby tournament, but it was cooking that became his primary passion.

He began his career at the Sheraton in Rotorua and, after winning the Central Chef of the Region title in 1993, moved to London and to work alongside chef Peter Thornley at Blakes Hotel, then The Lanesborough with notable chef Paul Gayler.

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On his return to New Zealand in 1995, Hemi worked as head chef at several top-class Wellington restaurants including Burbury’s at the Plaza International Hotel. Hemi led the Burbury’s team to back-to-back wins in 1998 and 1999 in the coveted Restaurant of the Year competition at the New Zealand Culinary fare.

In 2000, working as head chef at Fog City restaurant in Karori, he completed an impressive trifecta of major competition wins when he took out the Chef 2000 – Chef of the Nation title.

From 2001 - 2003 Hemi was involved in the establishment of Stellar restaurant in the Reading cinema complex. In 2003 Hemi competed in the Wellington Culinary Competition and won the title of Chef of the Capital. At this time he started sharing his skills with others, tutoring at the WelTec cookery school.

From 2004 to 2006 Hemi was the executive chef at Wharekauhau Country Estate – one of the world’s top 20 resorts.

After working as head chef at Bisque on Bolton at the Bolton Hotel during 2007, he and Leigh opened their own restaurant in Thorndon, which operated for seven years, Charlie Bill - Fine Food Bistro. The name ‘Charlie Bill’ had special significance for Hemi as it was the nickname given to him by his late grandfather, Alfred Mohi.

Alfred served in the 28th Māori Battalion, which sparked Hemi’s interest in military history and a new passion - collecting military insignia.

When not in the kitchen, Hemi spent many an hour searching for WWI and WWII cap and collar badges and insignia. He travelled to Cassino to visit the battalion’s battle fields, paying his respects at the grave of his great uncle William Henry Tuwharetoa Grace in Ravenna, Italy.

He enjoyed searching for pieces to add to his collection, extending his interest to collecting and digging for antique glass and stoneware bottles - some of which are extremely rare dating back to the early 20th century. With more than 1,000 pieces in his collection, his family have plans to open a private museum in Taranaki in which to display them.

Next was a five-year stint as executive chef at The Shepherd’s Arms. Part of this time involved work training young people in culinary skills, as part of a Government scheme, to help give them a step up in life. Then on to Mac’s Brew Bar for another head chef role.

Hemi’s dream role came up three years ago when he became resident chef to the deputy US Ambassador and his family. Here he could continue to pursue his passion in the kitchen, cooking for the family as well as creating culinary delights for private dinner parties and functions. This role allowed him to take a step back from the hustle-bustle and long, late hours of commercial kitchens to spend more quality family time with Leigh and their son Jaxon.

Hemi had many interests including fishing, DIY, guitar, music, history, rugby and gaming (World of Tanks). He was a humble, honest and talented man.

He passed away suddenly in his sleep one year ago.

In recognition of his contribution to Wellington’s culinary scene, talks are underway at WelTec to establish an annual award in the form of a memorial cup for a high achieving student.

“Hemi has won the chef of the nation at the annual hospitality show and was one of the first Māori chefs to begin incorporating flavours of this childhood, like pigeon and hinau berries into successful competition dishes,” said Wellington food critic, David Burton, Dominion Post, 2008.

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