Dora Rossi Chef and owner of Paddles Restaurant and Milani Café. Family-owned businesses, specialising in Samoan-Italian cuisine (reflecting the cultural background of the family)
Paddles Restaurant, situated on the waterfront in downtown Apia (the capital city of Samoa), was opened in 2006. They offer an international menu, but with a focus on Samoan and Italian cuisines. Paddles is popular all year around, with the busiest time of the year being during the dry season – April to October. Paddles employs five front-of-house staff and five kitchen staff, all of whom are locals. Only dinner is served at Paddles. The restaurant seats 60 and on a busy night, can turn around at least two to three times that number. Breakfasts and lunches are available at the Rossi family’s other establishment Milani Café, which was opened in 2013. Milani employs three kitchen staff and two front-of-house, again, all locals.
The clientele of both restaurants comprises a mix of tourists and locals. Paddles and Milani market primarily through word-of-mouth, however Trip Advisor is also a significant source of information for prospective customers, with Paddles having won ‘Best Samoan Restaurant’ on Trip Advisor every year for the past five years. In addition to word-of-mouth, they also advertise in destination guides in Samoa. Dora Rossi (and her restaurant Paddles) has also been featured in Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia. She also featured in the TVNZ South Pacific food and travel television series Real Pasifik. These opportunities were instrumental in helping her to promote Samoan cuisine. “Since being a part of the last book (Mea’ai Samoa), it’s been great. People recognise me and often want a picture with me and the book which is amazing. The book has put Samoa on the map. I’ve had people come up to me and pat me on the back and thanking me for what I’m doing for Samoa. Samoa has been known in the past for bad food and bad service but the book has been nothing but positive for Samoa (Dora Rossi).
Dora has been a pioneer of the new wave of Samoan cuisine. Both restaurants are proudly Samoan and provide a Samoan food experience for their customers, “They don’t come here to eat lamb shanks, they come here to eat coconuts and fish” (Dora Rossi). Dora sources most of her fruit and vegetable supplies from a local NGO Women in Business Development (WIBDI). WIBDI focuses on strengthening village economies in Samoa in ways that honour indigenous tradition, use traditional and modern technology, and promote fair trade. They have a particular emphasis on working with farmers to produce organic agricultural products. WIBDI was instrumental in supporting a ‘Farm-to-Table’ programme in Samoa with which Dora has been involved since its inception. Both restaurants buy organic produce from WIBDI every week. The main product purchased is coconuts, which are used to make coconut cream for oka. Oka is a traditional Samoan dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juice and coconut cream. Oka is one of the most popular entrees at Dora’s restaurants. Dora also purchases local green coconuts, which are the drinking coconuts. Her brother Giovanni uses them to make a local cocktail ‘Niu Passion’, which is popular with tourists. They also serve Koko Samoa (a locally grown and produced cocoa) smoothies at both businesses. One of the most popular desserts at Paddles Restaurant is ‘Misi Luki Pudding’, made from locally grown and dried organic bananas. Dora and her staff often talk to the customers about where they get their produce from. “All the produce we order is fresh and organic and we have no problem incorporating it into our menu” (Dora Rossi). Sustainability is also an important part of the Paddles and Milani experiences, “What I’ve been trying to do is create sustainable food. Sustainable tourism is very important to me. So ideally, we’d like to attract the tourists who will spend money and support the local farmers and local businesses” (Dora Rossi).
Although Dora has established a consistent and reliable supply-chain for produce for the restaurants, it was not without its challenges, “There were a few issues with getting the order on time but they’ve improved over the years”. Seasonality is another issue, with Dora indicating that they design their menus accordingly. Dora sees her relationship with WIBDI and their suppliers as symbiotic – when the suppliers deliver quality local products, Dora is able to promote them; when she promotes the local products on her menu, she can provide a quality experience for her guests. “It makes me honoured to use their produce and transform it into something that people from overseas love. We have endless compliments from customers about the amazing food” (Dora Rossi).
Dora has observed that only a small number of chefs in Samoa are engaging with the ‘Farm-to-Table’ model and she believes that there needs to be more awareness of it through actively promoting the use of local products to hotels and restaurants. She is hoping that the newly formed Samoa Chefs Association can be a vehicle for this. Dora also sees an important role for education and training for local chefs and the importance of Samoan-to-Samoan support, “The local chefs and owners of these local establishments need to get on board and support, educate and encourage Samoan locals to eat healthier.” The fact that chefs and kitchen staff are familiar with the local ingredients is seen by Dora as a plus. Staff feel comfortable working with the familiar ingredients and can be encouraged to use them in new and innovative ways. Dora encourages her staff to be creative and experiment with new ways of using the familiar.
For Dora, working with local Samoan products to create a uniquely Samoan culinary experience has been a profound and personally rewarding experience, “You have to have passion in what you do. I love food and I love Samoa. The Pacific way is sharing food. We love food and we always share what we have. Food is everything, it’s more than a plate of food.” Dora has also seen how Samoans themselves have become proud about their culinary heritage, “That’s what drives me to create really nice dishes with the local produce. I feel like I have a job now to continue, promote and change the views of Samoan cuisine.”