Pacific: Home economics (+recipes)

By Peter Calder

Expat chef Robert Oliver is on a mission to promote real Pacific food, writes Peter Calder.

Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, by Robert Oliver. Photo / Doug Sherring
Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, by Robert Oliver. Photo / Doug Sherring

With a camera swinging from his neck, the man moving among the tables in the swanky Q Restaurant looked like one of those celebrity photographers.

It was the opening night of a special season in which acclaimed expatriate chef Robert Oliver was showcasing "the foods and flavours of the South Pacific". So I could be forgiven for thinking that the smiling chap with reading glasses perched on his gleamingly shaved head was there to shoot pictures.

It turned out he was the chef.

"Shouldn't you be in the kitchen cooking my dinner?" I asked as we shook hands.

"Oh, no," he shot back, eyes sparkling. "I'm one of those fluffy chefs who doesn't do anything."

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

When we meet the next morning, over his abstemious breakfast of watermelon, kiwifruit and a flat white, the man's a whirlwind of activity. He's taking messages on his rubber-cased iPhone - "I'm always dropping it," he explains - or telling a niece who's dropped by to "grab a coffee and I'll be right there".

The evening before the opening night at Q, he'd taught students at AUT's School of Hospitality and Tourism how to turn his Pacific recipes into fine finger food; and here he is watching a restaurant full of invited guests enjoy the same food in grown-up portions.

There are four different kinds of poisson cru (raw fish), including snapper with mango and tuna with ginger; a plantain soup's coconut cream is lent kick by curry powder; the chicken is roasted with rum and vanilla; the belly pork marinated in coconut milk; the slaw of beans and cabbage brightened by shredded pawpaw.

The delicious array serves to launch Me'a Kai - the title means "come and eat" in Tongan - a handsome, lavishly illustrated book about the food of six South Pacific island groups: Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and Tahiti.

More than a cookbook (although it's packed with easy-to-follow recipes), Me'a Kai is also a report on experience. And it's the mission statement of a man who believes passionately in the potential of indigenous cuisine to unlock economic potential.

In Pacific matters, Oliver is no Sione-come-lately: born in Taranaki, he spent all his formative years in Fiji and Samoa, where his father started the local branches of the YMCA.

"They were really dynamic social organisations in those days," he says, "he was always doing really innovative programmes with the community - agricultural and social programmes and so forth."

So young Robert was no isolated toff living in an expat enclave: "My parents were social workers, so I spent all my time with local kids and local families.

"Oddly I don't really remember the New Zealand of my childhood. My internal programme was utterly altered by arriving in a place of such unbelievable vibrancy and colour."

He must have carried something of the Pacific with him - indeed, he refers to himself in his CV as a Pacific Islander - as he made his way as a chef. He learned the trade in Sydney and later worked in Las Vegas and New York City before starting his own restaurant in Miami (called - what else? - Suva) where Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei was a co-owner. Through it all he developed and maintained a Pacific style.

"I didn't really realise it till I was looking back, but it was unavoidable, really," he says.

"I was the tropical guy. The restaurants were always tropically concepted and I was teaching workshops on tropical cuisine in New York. It's where my expertise was.

"Most chefs are brought up on rice and potatoes; I was brought up on taro and breadfruit."

Oliver's style caught the eye of a Barbadian hotelier who employed him to oversee the kitchens in a new development on the small Caribbean island of St Lucia. Noticing that all the food in the hotel was being imported, he developed links with local food producers. But the local chefs had to be persuaded, too.

"They didn't want to use local food because it wasn't glamorous enough," he said. "But I knew that if I could get them excited about their own cuisine, we would get past that. And their cousins and uncles were growing the stuff, so it was good to give them the business."

The potential for the South Pacific of the model he had developed in St Lucia was obvious. But it wasn't until he met Tracey Berno, a tourism academic at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, who had been working for some time to connect farmers to hotels, that the present project took off.

The result is the book, written by the two of them, in which the locals - mainly women - share their recipes.

"These are dishes from people's homes," he says. "About 80 per cent of it is people making their dinner and I'm standing with them and I retest it later and that's it."

It may seem odd to people who have endured bad food in the Pacific islands and who have seen mutton flaps and turkey tails dumped on to island markets. But Oliver says attitudes are changing.

"There's all this fabulous home food in the Pacific that doesn't often make it on to tourist menus because it is thought of as not being good enough for palagi diners ...

"A lot of palagi do want to try Pacific home food, but maybe they don't want to go to a market or a street stall. They would like to have it in their hotel, albeit formatted a bit."

The project enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Air Pacific and the Foundation for the People of the South Pacific International, a network of community organisations working towards sustainable development.

"They recognised that if we can effect a change in the tourism industry, we would have a massive economic impact because we would be using all local ingredients."

And it's only the beginning: Berno and Oliver are working now on what they call the Pure Pacific Food Programme, linking the tourism industry with agriculture and giving chefs training in using local ingredients.

"We want to make them love their food and inspire them to love who they are. Soul food is called soul food for a reason. It's who we are and it's how we share ourselves with others."

Mango pudding
Raw tuna salad with pawpaw seeds

* Robert Oliver's South Pacific tasting menu ($100 plus $60 for matching wines) is available at Q Restaurant at the Westin throughout May. Ph: (09) 909 9038. Recipes and food images extracted from Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific (Random House, $75), available now.

- Herald on Sunday

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