By KATHY OMBLER
Chef Eugene Gomez insists his restaurant uses only the freshest vegetables and fish. Picture / Greg Bowker
Hamburgers will never be the same again, I suspect, for the couple dining across the restaurant from me the day I meet chef Eugene Gomez. There they were, picking at their buns and fries, eyes popping at the deliveries to the next table: cappuccino of local freshwater clam in vudi (wild banana) cream, blended coconut milk and lemongrass, followed by opakapaka (deep-sea snapper) with coconut sauce, wild tomatoes on a mousse of shrimp-flavoured eggplant and island vegetables.
Possibly the tangy lime sorbet, laced at the table with a generous pour of champagne, was the final straw. The holidaying hamburger-eaters left before having dessert.
I'm sure their burgers were fine. And I'm equally certain the buffets, barbecues and lovo (earth oven) traditional fare - often incorporated in economic package deals - are tasty and generous.
But there's something more exciting happening in the restaurants of Fiji, as I discovered when Daniel Lenherr, Sheraton Fiji chef and Fiji Chefs Association president, sent me on a trail of culinary discovery.
That's why I found myself at Eugene Gomez' restaurant, Chef's, touted by those in the know as one of the finest dining experiences in Nadi. In Fiji, actually.
And that's why - when I was taking so long deliberating over the comprehensive menu - I happily complied when Gomez offered to cook for me food that exemplified the style of Chef's.
Gomez, born in New Delhi, was executive chef at the Sheraton Fiji. Before that he worked in five-star hotels in India, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where he says only the best European cuisine was acceptable.
Now he talks enthusiastically about the Fiji produce with which he works - deep-sea fish and reef fish, Nadi River clams, eggplant that "grows everywhere", wild bananas and mushrooms, and fresh herbs grown year-round at the local Asparagus Farm (which also exports herbs to New Zealand).
"I like to use some Fijian influence, a little Indian influence, and take it to a higher level," Gomez says.
Popular demand meant he opened Chef's restaurants in Suva and Port Denerau and an Indian restaurant, Saffron, in Nadi.
Kiwi chef Adam Haywood fell in love with tropical climes in the Caribbean, where he was personal chef for British supermarket magnate Lord Sainsbury.
He has also worked in five-star hotels worldwide, including three years at the Heritage Hanmer Springs. He is now executive chef at the five-star Outrigger Fiji, running five restaurants and a kitchen team of 75.
"I love working in tropical places, they are my passion," Haywood enthuses as I get passionate about the Taste of Paradise entree before me in Outrigger's signature restaurant, Ivi. Bite-size treats of wild tomato and heart-of-palm salad, a glass of chilled mango soup with melon ball, yellowfin tuna and cucumber roll, and a "summer roll" of salmon, basil, pickled ginger, pawpaw and snowpea sprouts wrapped in rice paper tease my tastebuds as Haywood's enthusiasm gathers pace.
"The fish species here are fantastic," he says. "Wrasse, for example, is a deep-sea fish with fantastic flavour and texture. A fisherman in the northern islands catches them for me on hand-lines - you should see his hands."
Images of gnarled, ripped hands failed to deter me from Haywood's signature dish, a fillet of wrasse topped with crab meat resting on a sweet-potato cake with island asparagus and a pawpaw and basil butter sauce.
"The passionfruit here is absolutely stunning," Haywood says. "So is the hybrid mango, which only grows in western Viti Levu.
"In my salads I use the heart of palm trees and ota, a Fiji fern like the New Zealand pikopiko."
Haywood sources much of his fresh produce from nearby Sigatoka Valley, which supplies much of Fiji's fruit and vegetables.
All the main towns have produce markets and there are many roadside stalls where vendors sit patiently in front of their houses.
These are well worth a look during a Fiji visit, Haywood says. "Clams, prawns, crabs, fish, all types of fruit, spices, and just about every vegetable you can imagine are all over the place."
This offers great opportunities for in-room snacks, particularly if your accommodation has a kitchen.
Haywood continues by describing what he does with all this wonderful produce for "modern Pacific".
In Ivi Restaurant, decor and uniforms could also be described as "modern Pacific", and the food is artistically presented on local pottery and palm-wood. "You know you're in Fiji when you're in Ivi," Haywood says.
Fellow Kiwi chef Richard Cross has his own little island paradise, the exclusive Vomo Island Resort. He was headhunted from Millbrook Resort by Vomo's Kiwi owners to install a state-of-the-art kitchen from which he feeds a daily maximum of just 35 guests.
Cross says Fiji is a chef's paradise. "Working here is like working right next to the market. The seafood, its availability, freshness and variety is fantastic. Our fish are caught on the Coral Coast or here. We have our own boats and licence so we can fish whenever we want to."
That brought to mind my morning's flight on a seaplane, from which I watched a school of tuna thrashing the blue-green Pacific water in a feeding frenzy near Vomo.
"I've set my focus on East meets West - light, healthy food," Cross says. "I love experimenting, trying new things with fish and with Fiji produce that we don't get in New Zealand, such as cassava and dalo. I serve a la carte and my menu changes every day.
"I love it. I really want to make a difference here in Fiji."
My dinner is coral trout and brie ravioli with seared scallops, saffron-infused potatoes and solefrino of vegetables, followed by coconut tiramisu with pistachio-nut ice cream, malibu anglasie and grapes. That certainly made a difference to my stay at Vomo.
Expats, however, are not the only chefs making a culinary difference in Fiji. At First Landing Resort, near Nadi, Shailesh Prasad is winning awards with his seafood specialties
Dining on the beach, surf shushing over the nearby reef, my biggest dilemma is which of five lobster menu options to select.
The traditional mornay, or thermidor in mustard sauce, or curried? Lobster served with sweet rourou leaves wins me over.
Prasad, who trained at a Melbourne culinary college, sources his huge and sweet-tasting lobsters from Vanua Levu, makes his own curry pastes and, like Gomez, uses fresh herbs from the Asparagus Farm.
He is a busy chef, with yachties and local businessmen beating a regular path to his restaurant on the beach.
Even the Sheraton, Fiji's flagship resort and long known for its stunning Ports O'Call restaurant, has joined the "modern Pacific" Fiji fusion trend. In the Sheraton Royal Denerau, the name of the Pacific Pasta Kitchen is a recommendation in itself.
Diners mix and match seafood and spices with a choice of varied fresh pasta. There's also a tapas selection.
If asked, staff are quick to recommend such combinations as spicy pawpaw-filled ravioli mixed with sundried tomato and parmesan, or corn mixed with peppermint harissa coconut cream. That could be matched with grilled prawn brushed with liquorice root.
Looks like island life just got more complicated. And interesting.
* Kathy Ombler travelled to Fiji courtesy of Air Pacific and was hosted by the Fiji Visitors Bureau. Photographer Greg Bowker flew on Freedom Air and was also hosted by FVB.