Melisa Nikolo Takai

It’s never too late or too early to pursue your passion or dreams.  Work hard, take risks and be brave, and make the most of every opportunity.

Melisa Nikolo Takai, recent cooking competition winner, shares her experience whilst studying cookery at the Culinary Collective Sylvia Park Campus. Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from. 

I am the 3rd oldest of a Tongan family of 7.  I was born in Tonga-tapu and migrated with my family to New Zealand in 2000. 

What’s your first memory of cooking and when did you know you wanted to work with food?

Growing up from a very young age I had always encountered my mother’s cooking. I would always give a helping hand to mum and grandmother when making a Tongan traditional dessert which is basically grated breadfruit, saturated with lemon caramel sauce. This delicious dessert is what kept me in the kitchen and since then I've grown a passion for cooking.

Why is cooking important to you?

I am a happily married wife and a mother of four beloved children. Having become a mother at 16, I have experienced cooking for my family everyday and night. Cooking is an important part of my life because it brings joy to my family and it creates a great bond with my kids, when getting them to participate.

What attracted you to study at The Culinary Collective? 

In 2016 I studied with Sewtec fashion academy and graduated with a Level 3 certificate in fashion. It wasn't the path for me, so I got employed in a meat factory for a couple of years before I decided I wanted to put my passion to work and that’s when I enrolled with The Culinary Collective.

What skills have you learnt that you think are vital for working in the culinary arts?

I’ve learned so much from my course, such as the S.O.P (Safety. Operation. Procedures) skills, time management, food safety, team work, knife skills and independent food and flavour combinations.

How important is it to build connections within the industry? 

Building connections within the industry is important because it opens up more opportunities, sometimes opportunities that everyone can’t get.

Tell us about your internship and what is involved. 

My internship has been an amazing experience, especially cooking alongside my Tongan sisters Sia, Lina, and Steve, this has made my days of cooking both fun and enjoyable. Our internship involves cooking and preparing food on Mondays for various organisations and then delivering food from Tuesday to Fridays to the other schools in the NZMA family, such as the New Zealand Institute of Sport. We prepare and cook every day to serve lunches to around 60 people at Unispace in the city which has been a huge bonus for me to experience. I also got the opportunity to be part of a dumpling festival cooking dumplings 8 hours non-stop. 

How has it helped you?

The work experience has really helped to push me out of my comfort zone, and to strive for the best I can be in the cooking industry. It has helped me with confidence and time management.

What’s been a highlight of your experience at The Culinary Collective? 

Taking part in the Culinary Collective cooking competition has really built my confidence. Having the support of my family, friends and especially my amazing tutor Nick Holland,  his teachings and advice really helped me achieve and win the competition.

What are your next steps?  

My next step is to work for a few years, to gain the experience I need and then start up a little restaurant.

Tell us the one ingredient you can’t live without? 

The one ingredient that I cannot live without is butter!

What advice would give to someone who aspires to pursue a career in the culinary arts? 

My advice to others who are inspired and would like to pursue a career in cooking or the culinary arts is that it doesn’t matter how slow you go as you go along, as long as you don’t stop. It’s never too late or too early to pursue your passion or dreams.  Work hard, take risks and be brave, and make the most of every opportunity.