Meet the Culinary Guru of the South Pacific

LifeStyle FOOD chats to award-winning chef and Culinary Ambassador for the South Pacific Food and Wine Festival, Robert Oliver.

1) You were born in New Zealand, how important was food and cooking while you were growing up?

I was born in New Zealand but raised in Fiji and Samoa- and being raised in Fiji meant being raised in the incredible market in Suva, still the center of the community there. It really is one of the worlds great food markets and a visit to Fiji should include a visit to the Suva market, especially on a Saturday when all of the producers from the out-laying villages come into town with clams and fish and an amazing array of seaweeds and many things you have never seen before. Fiji is a real culinary melting pot, so to be exposed to this so young was incredible invigorating. And of course New Zealand has incredible ingredients and most people - especially in the country - still buy from local farms. In the age of farmers markets and organics, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands became cool by staying as they have always been! Maybe not bigger, but better.

2) When did you realise you wanted to be a chef?

I still don’t think of myself as chef, or rather as ONLY a chef in the typical sense. I always loved the food- the way people are when they eat together, the sharing aspect, the bringing of people together, the story a dish tells, the cultural information….and even though I have worked as both a restaurant and catering chef (ie a classic chef), I have also worked extensively in community food programs, in sustainability, and of course, I am an author. In New York City, where I lived for many years, I set up a program feeding homeless people, a self help kitchen in Times Square for homeless street teens, a cooking series for African Immigrants with AIDs…and then in the Caribbean, I worked creating agricultural links with hotels. I write for 3 food magazines - one in Fiji, one China and one in the Caribbean - am a food and travel blogger for the Huffington Postand and I am now working in Shanghai facilitating New Zealand’s food trade with China. And my next project is in Samoa creating an organic Samoan tourism cuisine that is supplied by organic local farmers (there are 500 orgainc farms in Samoa!!!) linked to the islands hotels. So you see, the word “chef” can mean many things! I am thrilled that I am able to use food as a development tool, by doing what I really love- cook-, I am able to positively affect communities I really care about.

3) Congratulations on winning the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific. It must have been quite an honour?

It was stunning and I still often quite overwhelmed. The Gourmand Award is the top global award for food books- like the Pulitzer or the Oscar- and we took the top award!! Up against NOMA -which the week before had been voted the best restaurant in the world, and the New York Times Essential Cookbook. The New York Times!! Okay!

You know, I did not write the book for awards, but it is very sweet validation. Tracy Berno (my amazing co-author) and Shiri Ram ( the photographer) and I just felt that the South Pacific was a story waiting to be told and we all had lived there for years and it shaped us.

Want to try some of the recipes from this award-winning book? CLICK HERE!

4) What is the inspiration behind the book?

We wrote the book initially as development tool. We knew that if chefs in the South Pacific could see their food as we saw it- amazing!- that it would migrate from their homes to the hotels menus, ( where it is not a big presence now- all of you who have been to the South Pacific must have noticed that a lot of the local food is not on the menus) That would then create a demand for local agriculture and THAT is sustainable tourism- very significant for the Pacific as tourism is the big industry and agriculture- farmers- the big unused resource. We thought a wonderful cookbook would help the chefs see how great their local food is. But what we found amazed even us. It was like raising a hidden treasure.

There is an abundance of amazing food in the Pacific and people opened their homes and kitchens to us to show it off! And who knew for example that there is a group in Samoa- “Women in Business Development” that has fostered 500 organic farms! That the Royal family in Tonga supports a organic initiative, that there are clusters of organic farmers in Rarotonga and also distinct dishes in each of the different island WITHIN the Cook Islands, that Tahiti has gorgeous French bistros and cafes, a great night food market, that Fiji holds incredible know how on medicinal knowledge of tropical foods, that in Vanuatu the yam crop is planted according to the laws of Kastom( local tradition)…who knew! We were blown out. And also the incredible warmth of the people of the Pacific, this is what I could see stunned the readers in Paris, they were pulled in by the warmth and charm of the people of the South Pacific.

5) For those unfamiliar, what are the main characteristics and flavours of South Pacific cuisine?

You know - there is a lot of diversity in Pacific food, and every island group has its dishes. What is common is the ingredient base - coconuts, great fish, great tropical fruits, all of the root cops, seaweeds, VERY healthy foods. The original diet we found to be of very high integrity everywhere, and with a resurgence of organics in the region, I’d say we are going to see amazing healthy dishes emerge. You know, organics is the pacific is the mechanism by which Pacific Islanders keep their Pacific nature

6) What is your role in the upcoming South Pacific Food & Wine Festival? What can people expect if they attend this exciting event?
I am the Culinary Ambassador for the festival, basically one of the chefs, but I guess my book embodies the spirit of the festival - there is a theme of working with local Pacific ingredients and contributing to Pacific tourism in Pacific terms.

There is much more than chef stuff going on- and there is lots of that with an amazing line of chefs including Manu Fiedel, Peter Gordon, Michael Meredith…amazing food writer Lauraine Jacobs, sustainable tourism folks like Lelei Lelaulu and Tracy Berno. This is really more than a food festival and I think is important and significant for the region. For me, it is a great follow up to Me’a Kai- we broke new ground with the book and both created and proved an interest in Pacific cuisine - this will do the same, and at the same time sharpen the focus of Fiji’s tourism machine to better serve Fiji’s agricultural community.

I am very excited about the festival. It will be a game changer and I think take food festivals to a whole new level. Robert Clark and his team have impressed me immensely and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

For your chance to WIN an amazing 5 night luxury holiday to Fiji and attend the festival, CLICK HERE!

7) Who or what inspires you in the kitchen?

I love great books! I know the work that goes into them and you have to be so inspired and alive and driven to even get to the book process.

I’m inspired by chefs who take the whole industry up a notch and add smart thinking to the plate. Stephanie Alexander comes to mind in Australia. Its hard to imagine Australia without her, and she I think has defined what Australian cuisine is and what being Australian means in food. I am pretty much in awe of her! I tend to admire food culture folk more than the usual high profile TV chefs or the like- people who understand that food is a language. I am thinking now of Madhur Jaffrey (India cuisine), Claudia Roden ( Moroccan and more), Diana Kennedy ( Mexico), Jessica Harris ( Black America and the Caribbean), Rosemary Parkinson ( who wrote Caribbean Culinaria- my single favorite food book)

8) What is your signature dish?

Honestly - I don’t have one! I love all of the ceviche and raw fish dishes in the Pacific, though, and will likely work some into my menus at the food festival

9) Do you have any top tips for people wanting to cook Pacific-inspired dishes at home?

Bring over a crowd and make it a sharing experience. Pacific island food is to shared and partied with!
Frozen banana leaves are fine, never use sweetened coconut cream ( the best is from Samoa) …

10) What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Wow..yeah…it may sound a bit trite but I do think of it around major decisions…given to me by my friend Lloraine Neithardt in New York

“ If destiny calls, all you have to do is show up”

I think for me also, some of the tougher projects that come up, it helps to make decisions and stay on the right path if you say to yourself “ what decision now will I be happy about on the day that I die”…in other words, keep the big picture in mind.

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