Kiwi kai on tour

By Maria Slade

Trade bosses believe their appointment of a roving Kiwi chef to promote New Zealand food in China is a world first.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise has hired Robert Oliver for an initial six-month term to work with chefs and other key influencers in the Chinese food and beverage sector.

It had taken Kiwi chefs to China before but only on an ad-hoc basis and never for an extended period, trade commissioner to Shanghai, Jeff Shepherd, said.

It hoped to make Oliver's role a long-term appointment.

As far as NZTE knew, no other country had done similar in China, and the initiative had gone down well.

"It's seen as something quite different and exciting among the industry."

Oliver said he had already been there for three months, conducting events, working in Chinese kitchens and developing recipes for New Zealand meat and seafood.

As a professional chef and author - his book Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific has been shortlisted for the best foreign category in this year's Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris - his presence was seen as a kind of food cultural exchange.

"I'm not a salesperson. So I can actually get in the kitchen and say, 'let's do this, let's do that'."

His work had been varied, from conducting a paua event with Chinese celebrity chef Da Dong in Beijing to developing dishes and providing training for two large steakhouse chains, to creating recipe cards for a supermarket promotion of New Zealand beef.

The time was right in China for doing something different. "They're interested in being innovative now, they want dishes that have a slightly Western edge or they want to do Chinese food with this great premium New Zealand product."

Longer term, NZTE saw Oliver getting involved in product development, Shepherd said.

"It's a great chance for us to be close to the people who use our food. But along the way he also picks up valuable intelligence which will help feed into our food and beverage strategies."

Introducing dishes to the large Chinese restaurant chains was something it hadn't done before. Developing meat products with instructions that offered the consumer a quick meal solution was another new area.

Shepherd said the potential for New Zealand food exports to China was huge.

Concerns about food safety was still the significant underlying theme for Chinese consumers and officials, and this had in part been responsible for the increase in sales of our dairy products there.

"We think that New Zealand companies should be looking to leverage off this or respond to it, because we are a provider of safe food, and probably it's even more important to Chinese consumers than the clean, green image."

Regulatory changes allowing New Zealand to export live seafood to China was an opportunity, and there was a small but growing market for our wine.

While dairy was our biggest export at about US$1.3 billion ($1.7 billion), seafood was the next biggest at US$105 million.

Shepherd described as a significant development a venture formed last year by five fishing companies - Sanford, Pacifica Seafoods, Greenshell Investments, Sealord and Aotearoa Seafoods - to jointly market greenshell mussels in China under the Pure New Zealand Greenshell brand.

It was a model of collaboration NZTE hoped could be rolled out in other parts of the food and beverage sector. "It gives them some size and scale which is what we think is required," he said.

- Herald on Sunday

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