Robert Oliver is a man on a mission and his quest is simple: to elevate the status of Pacific cuisine in the minds and mouths of the world. We've all done it - taken a holiday on an idyllic Pacific island only to return extolling the virtues of its untouched beauty and the warmth of the people but chances are, if we were resort-bound, not always being so complimentary about the food. "Bloody taro and frozen vegetables" I may have been heard to utter a few years back when a friend inquired about my trip to Fiji and how I'd found the food. To Oliver, this is a travesty and a stereotype that needs changing and that's exactly what he's doing.
NZ-born, but raised in Fiji and Samoa before heading to US, Oliver has dedicated his life to food. His career has covered the full spectrum of being a chef and restaurateur in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Sydney as well as setting up "farm to table" resorts in the Caribbean and food programmes feeding homeless people in New York City. Not surprisingly, given his background, many of his restaurant ventures were pacific-themed. "I've always loved the flavour influences of the South Pacific. They tended to linger on my taste memory and work their way into my menus wherever I went," he drawls in his soft American accent when I catch up with him.
I was keen to talk to him because when he made the life-changing decision in 2008 to step back from his busy schedule and return to the South Pacific, it was not only his life that changed, but the lives of thousands of others related to the food business. You see he returned to the South Pacific to write a cookbook and that was the start of it all. Initially his dream was quite modest - he wanted the book to be a collection of the recipes of home-cooked dishes that he knew to be fabulous and yet remained hugely undervalued.
"When I returned to the South Pacific after more than a decade away, what I found was astonishing. The food was mind-blowingly good. I was eating in homes and it was dazzling. There were plenty of good ideas and ingredients being used but these were not necessarily being translated into restaurants, resorts or hotels and therefore tourists were getting a false impression of what Pacific cuisine stood for."
Gradually he began to realise the cookbook he'd wanted to write needed to have a much bigger influence. "It needed to become a development tool so that the food I was enjoying so much from home cooks could be migrated into the hotels and resorts servicing the tourism sector. The local growers and farmers needed to be involved somehow as well."
He began working closely with Dr Tracy Berno, a tourism academic who had been working towards connecting farmers with hotels in Fiji and together they began to explore the scope of the project. At the beginning, Oliver was certain of two things: that tourism was the biggest money-spinner for the Pacific and that attempts to please, or appease, tourists, had led to hotels and resorts habitually importing food and ideas and eventually losing connection with local producers.
There was a failure to even acknowledge their own traditional dishes as being "worthy enough" to serve to visitors. Oliver calls this a form of "food colonialism".
"Can you imagine the effect on a people when others are saying 'your food is not good'? Especially when those people demonstrate sharing, generosity and celebration so often through food. It hurts."
Oliver's passion is evident, so it is no surprise he poured his heart and soul into the cookbook - but what did surprise even him, was the reaction it received when it was published in 2010. Me'a Kai, The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, co-authored with Berno, stunned the food world by winning the top prize of "Best Cookbook in the World" at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, considered the "Pulitzer" of cookbooks. And the effect?
"Life changed in a nano-second with that award" recalls Oliver. "Suddenly Pacific food was elevated to the status it deserves - that of a cuisine diverse and rich with vibrant flavours, ingredients and cooking methods. At last." It's a beautiful book, crammed full of recipes of traditional dishes as well as modernised versions, and it weighs in at 2kg. Oliver may joke that "We sell it by the kilo!" but he's deadly serious about what the book has achieved so far. "There's been a run-on effect from that award and we are immensely proud." Just last week saw Fiji host the inaugural South Pacific Food and Wine Festival and this is a direct output of the hype of books like Me'a Kai and the work that Oliver, Berno and others are doing to expand people's thinking when it comes to Pacific cuisine. "Now people are talking about Pacific cuisine in positive ways, it's been legitimised. The undeserved reputation it had is finally changing. People no longer base their experience of the food on the hotel they stayed in, for a start."
We wouldn't dream of doing that if we travelled to Italy or France - stay in a hotel, eating only in the hotel restaurant and then basing our opinion of the country's cuisine on that alone - yet that's what was happening in the South Pacific.
The changes reach even further. Me'a Kai has been accepted into the Cordon Bleu curriculum and Pacific food will now be taught alongside other cuisines of the world. "This is a massive achievement, direction-changing. It is now included as a bona fide cuisine alongside the others, which we all naturally look to when building the foundations of cooking. And so it should be. "
Oliver is currently based in Shanghai, as consulting chef to NZ Trade and Enterprise, facilitating New Zealand food exports to China. The market up there is huge but hard to tap into. How hard? "People see New Zealand as beautiful and serene but that's about it. Our wine exports have made some inroads but our food, not as much. Imagine if you got FedEx'd a big piece of jellyfish. That's where New Zealand lamb is to them right now. But we're making progress and I'm confident. People want to know where and how and what the story is that lies behind what they're consuming and we are well-placed to provide that. By comparison, we're not industrial. We're all about personal and hand-made and connectivity is very desirable at the moment. It's a big job but we'll get there". That's the thing with Oliver, he's super-optimistic, has a calm efficient energy about him and seems to be able to harness the right people to help him with his many projects. He's in talks with a business partner to establish a chain of Pacific-inspired restaurants, the first of which will be in New Zealand. With such a huge Pacific population residing here, as well as a growing interest in food from the region, Oliver feels the time is right. "We're scoping sites at the moment and it's very exciting, not only for the food but because laughter, fun and generosity are so entrenched in Pacific culture and these are characteristics diners seek ... so the whole experience will be magical."
What seems magical is that what started as a small dream has grown into an inspirational vision which continues to grow and provide a shining light for the cuisine of the South Pacific. In Oliver's words: "Me'a Kai came at the right time. I've just gotten started. The momentum will just continue to build. The book was just the beginning of something." I don't doubt it.
Tahitian snapper tartare
400g snapper fillet, finely diced
1 cup finely diced mango
3 Tbs basil pesto
Juice of 3 limes
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, minced
1/2 cup very finely diced spring onion
Salt and pepper
1 Combine all ingredients except salt and pepper, mixing well. Refrigerate until well chilled, chilling four serving plates at the same time.
2 Season with salt and pepper and mould on to chilled plates.
* From Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific by Robert Oliver (Random House, $75).