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From overstayer to entrepreneur

19 December 2017

Posted in: Pacific Radio News,

By Mabel Muller -

A former overstayer is chopping away the negative stereotypes that come with the title, after opening a new cafe buffet in South Auckland.

Feleti Tu’akalau has been a chef for 22 years.

After moving to New Zealand from Tonga, he met his wife and were both living in Auckland as overstayers.

He says living as an overstayer was like being in prison, locked away from all the opportunities that New Zealand had to offer.

“People look at you as a different person but from my experience, you have to treat people the same. At the end of the day we’re all working for our own lives.”

His wife secured a part-time job that helped pay for their $75 wedding rings and after they got married, Tu’akalau says he took on his wife’s job while she stayed at home to look after their daughter.

“I worked for nearly two years as a kitchen hand and then they offered me the job,” he says. “I came here, English was very bad, education wasn’t good, you know you’re lost in a big country and finally, I found a gate to break into new life.”

Feleti Tu'akalau. Photo/ PRN.  

NZ-renowned restauranteur Judith Tabron and John Gosney offered Tu’akalau a chance to become qualified, a chance he snatched up in no time.

“They paid for everything. John Gosney is the one that paid for my course and I’m really glad. I never thought I’d be a chef but everything changed," he says. "Also Sai Kumar and his wife Gauri, he's the owner of Mikano where I'm still currently working. Without them this dream wouldn't have come to life."

Tu’akalau opened his dream café Eight Roses on the weekend in Ōtāhuhu, with a menu of some of the favourite dishes he’s mastered during his time as a chef in city restaurants and hotels.

Tu'akalau's new cafe in South Auckland. Photo/ PRN.

He says food is a big part of the Pacific culture and he wants to share his passion for cooking with his community.

Moroccan-style lamb shanks, pork porchetta, couscous salad, sticky-date pudding with caramel sauce – are some of the dishes Tu’akalau wants Pacific people to get a taste of.

“These are the kind of foods our people hardly eat so I wanted to bring it out here. Don’t waste your time going to town and pay heaps of money for a small piece.”

Photo/ PRN.

The ambitious father-of-eight is the only qualified chef in his café, but has been teaching his wife and kids for years and hopes his new business will be a legacy passed down to future generations.

Tu'akalau cooking with his wife and son. Photo/ PRN.

He says he often reflects on his past and uses it to motivate his children.

“It’s a pretty sad and funny story. I always tell my kids how I come to New Zealand and overstayed here for nearly 11 years. I worked before I got my residency so I’m glad they didn’t find me and take me back home.”

Tu’akalau is now busy keeping up with a hectic schedule in the lead up to the holiday season, but after spending hours in his steamy cramped cooking space making sure food is ready to be served, he says it’s all worth it.

“Sometimes you have to take the risk… I created this business from nothing. Started with no money at all," he says. “But nothing is impossible. Whatever you wanna do, you can do it.”

Feleti Tu'akalau and his wife Kato Tu'akalau. Photo/ PRN.

Tags: Tonga, business,