Diner’s Diary

New Zealand restaurant in Hong Kong, Motu Kiwi, to close – but not before one last street party

  • After three years serving New Zealand cuisine at prices that made margins razor-thin, couple need a break and time to digest lessons they’ve learned
  • On December 9 Motu Kiwi will hold one last party, and a farewell haka war dance, on Graham Street, Central
PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 4:24pm

New Zealand expats in Hong Kong are going to miss one of their favourite restaurants when it closes in mid-December. Motu Kiwi in NoHo is shutting after three-and-a-half years because owners, Vinish “Vini” Nath and Jo Ching, say they are running out of funds to keep it going and need a break.

The narrow restaurant near the Mid-Levels escalators doesn’t seat many people, but the ones who do manage to squeeze in rave about the food; it includes dishes such as deep-fried whitebait with manuka smoked bacon, pan-fried salmon with horseradish potato salad and wakame guacamole, and lamb ribs with tamarind sauce garnished with scallions and crispy shallots.

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Nath, who grew up in New Zealand, and Ching opened Motu Kiwi in 2015, pouring their savings into it the Graham Street venue. He always wanted to have a restaurant to celebrate the small South Pacific country.

Nath says when most people think of New Zealand food, manuka honey and food cooked underground comes to mind. Motu Kiwi is a platform to showcase New Zealand ingredients, which he puts his own culinary twist on.

A post shared by Motu Kiwi (@motukiwi) on Jun 25, 2018 at 5:03am PDT

“It was my dream to promote New Zealand products,” Nath says. “New Zealand has beautiful scenery, and New Zealanders and the government take care of the land and sea, so they keep it as clean and pure as possible. The venison, beef, lamb and seafood grow in pristine environments.”

Nath even gets manuka wood chips for his smoker in the back of the restaurant to give some of his dishes a delicate, smoky finish. “Smoking food is a tradition in New Zealand. I grew up seeing people smoke their food. And the manuka wood makes it slightly sweet because it’s what the bees impart to the trees,” he says.

Most of the diners who come to Motu Kiwi are expats, either New Zealanders or – shock horror – Australians, observes Ching. Hongkongers who either went to school or travelled to New Zealand dine there, too. “We even have travellers who find out about this place through word of mouth,” she says.

Nath was born in Fiji and grew up in New Zealand. He came to Hong Kong in 2010 to be head chef at The Globe’s second location above Hollywood Road. It was at the British-style pub where he met Ching, a Chinese-Filipino working there.

He’s familiar with the Hong Kong restaurant industry, having also worked at Cafe Deco when it was on The Peak, Stables at Hullett House, and the now closed Wild Grass that was in Central.

Over the years, even the New Zealand trade office caught wind of what Nath was doing with his New Zealand food products, including craft beer, and hired Motu Kiwi to cater some events for the office and the consulate.  

However, in the past half year, business has slowed, and Nath has also had to close the restaurant twice because of drainage issues.

Hit the grill and sizzle, sizzle, sizzle...

A post shared by Motu Kiwi (@motukiwi) on Nov 25, 2017 at 7:06pm PST

“People don’t want to spend as much [on food] as they used to,” he observes. More families with young children are moving to Hong Kong, and the open-kitchen restaurant doesn’t have enough space for children,” he says. “We don’t have investors; we’ve been keeping this going with our own savings. We managed to keep it together for three years. We need to take a break.”

As first-time restaurateurs, the couple have learned a number of lessons, among them the need to have investors and avoid sinking all one’s savings into a project.

“We need to find the right people and investors to work with, and learn what worked and what didn’t. We sell ourselves too cheaply, but on the other hand we want to be reasonably priced and want to educate people about New Zealand food,” Nath says.

A post shared by Motu Kiwi (@motukiwi) on Jul 5, 2018 at 6:13am PDT

Pricing is something restaurateurs are constantly wrestling with in Hong Kong. While rents are exorbitant, they want to give diners value for money (so that they come back again), but that means profits are razor-thin.

Motu Kiwi will be going out with a bang. On December 9 the restaurant will hold a big lunchtime party that will spill out onto the sloped street. Partnering with MOA Adventure Club – which was co-founded by craft beer company MOA Brewing Company, and Hong Kong wine distributor Northeast Wines and Spirits – the event will be a fundraiser for the club. Kiwi poet Blair Reeve will also be there.

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The farewell will have a kiwi twang, with a haka or Maori war dance set to take place. Nath shows me a video of one that was performed just outside Motu Kiwi recently, and says it brought tears to his eyes.

It probably will again on Saturday.

Motu Kiwi, 41-43 Graham Street, Central, tel: 3706 8074