Thomas Hishon grew up living an idyllic life most people would envy.
“I’m from rural New Zealand… both sides of my family were quite involved with farming and breeding sheep. My granddad was one of the first people to go into the wild and bring deer back and farm deer… My grandparents and aunties and uncles would grow a lot of vegetables, so I was always around food.”
Hishon always felt connected to nature as a kid, so when he began traveling around the world as a young chef, he was surprised to find that his pastoral experiences were anything but universal: “The older I’ve gotten, the more I value that way of life. I’ve come back to it in the way I cook. The way I create food is very much based on nostalgia and early memories in a wholesome, comforting way.”
That nostalgia is tainted by the environmental realities of life in the anthropocene. and so last October, Hishon and his business partners opened kingi, a restaurant devoted to highlighting sustainable seafood.
Global warming coupled with the world’s voracious appetite for seafood has led to incredible oceanic degradation. Fishing methods like bottom-trawling destroy the ocean floor and can even wipe out whole habitats, since they bring in bycatch fish that get discarded by the fishermen.
Hishon developed an interest in sustainable seafood years ago, but it was only recently that he, “found some really amazing people who were doing things in a different way.” At his previous concepts, Orphans Kitchen and Daily Bread, Hishon established a wide network of specialty suppliers, so it was important that any new place continued the trend.
It should be noted that kingi has received backlash from the Maori community for its name, which bares a striking similarity to an important indigenous te reo Māori word connected to the Kīngitanga movement. But Hishon claims that the name is a reference to the slang term “kingy,” which refers to a local variety of yellowtail amberjack.
He says he draws his inspiration for the restaurant from the seafood and those who provide it: “And that’s where the idea for kingi came about, channeling those relationships with the fishermen… People think about extravagance when they come to a seafood restaurant. Things like langoustine or scampi or bluefin tuna… a lot of those fish aren’t on the menu at kingi. The way I’ve pieced the menu together is to look at the fishing industry here in New Zealand and celebrating people who are doing things that are really positive.”
Hishon knows that sustainability is difficult to define, so he simplifies things by only using fish that are caught in very specific ways by people he knows and trusts. He works with oyster and mussel farms, humane longline fishermen who “are very selective about which fish come onto the boat,” and even divers who go after treasures like abalone, scallops, a local variety of mollusk called paua, and butterfish.
He also sources directly from New Zealand’s last dedicated fishing community, a small archipelago called The Chatham Islands about 800 km off the coast. According to Hishon, “The way they fish is just with cod pots, and then they dive for paua, crayfish, and kina or sea urchin. The fishery there is just so abundant and it’s amazing to see the conservation that’s going on over there at the moment.”
Conservation efforts are especially visceral for New Zealanders like Hishon because, “New Zealand was one of the last countries in the world to be colonized… In the 70s, 80s, and even in the 90s there was a huge abundance of fish in our waters. Over the past 20 to 30 years a lot of the fisheries have gotten to the point where they’re on the edge of collapse… The way we’re fishing in New Zealand and across the world is not supporting the fish and the biodiversity of the oceans.”
Hishon hopes that by serving less celebrated species and thoughtfully sourced fish at his restaurant he can help to change the conversation about what deserves to be elevated and help keep the fishermen who work with the ocean in business.
He’s just one chef in a sea of them, but when it comes to sustainability, every little bit helps.