Jesse Lee

Jesse Lee
Jesse Lee

Jesse Lee

Currently working at:
Palusami Restaurant, Apia, Samoa

Palusami is a traditional dish. It makes Samoan food Samoan. It is taro leaves, coconut milk and the flavour of smoke from the umu (earth oven) (Jesse Lee). Palusami the restaurant is located in central Apia, the capitol and main city in Samoa. They promote local produce and Samoan made products in their food. All meat, fish and vegetables used in the restaurant are purchased directly from local farmers, villages and families. Palusami’s menu is inspired by traditional Samoan food, but “infused” with international flavours, “Samoan cuisine has a place in the culinary world. Enjoy this organic experience at Palusami Restaurant and Bar” ( Palusami open five nights a week and serves lunch and dinner. The restaurant is small and employs three staff in the litchen and two for front-of-house. 

Jesse Lee, the chef and owner of Palusami, was born in Samoa but moved to New Zealand when he was nine years old. his journey in the kitchen began with making toana’i (Sunday feast) at the age of 10 or 11. Jesse trained as a chef in New Zealand and worked in several top Auckland establishments before deciding to return home to Samoa, “I consider Samoa home and it’s a place I love. I wanted to come home to do something for my people which is why our menu is very local based. Every meal has a local influence” (Jesse Lee). Frustrated that local establishments in Samoa were reluctant to embrace local ingredients and dishes, Jesse decided to open Palusami.

Palusami supports a farm-to-table approach, “We want our local people to know that the little garden patch next to their house is good enough to be served at our restaurant. Palusami’s intentions are to show the locals that our pork, our chicken and our beef is good enough for a restaurant menu. Not only is it good enough, it’s healthier for us because it is organic” (Ronna Lee Hadfield, Jesse’s sister). All the meat and vegetables on Palusami’s menu, are locally sourced and fruit and vegetables come from the local markets or are sourced them from certain families or through the WIBDI organic baskets, “If I’m not ordering from WIBDI, I like to buy from our local market because I like to give back to them as well. The point of our restaurant is to help the local economy” (Jesse Lee).

Jesse has observed that local cuisine has been significantly impacted by westernised cuisine. It is his goal to revive traditional Samoan cuisine. He also believes that one of the reasons why local operators are only recently embracing Samoan cuisine at restaurants is because chefs and business owners have been under the impression that tourists in Samoa only want to eat what they are familiar with back home, which is not the case. He has also observed that local people are more surprised by Palusami’s menu than the tourists because their familiar Samoan foods are being presented in contemporary, innovative (but Samoan) ways. As his sister Ronna said, “Often people think of Samoan restaurants to be smorgasbord or buffet style. You get a plate and you just pile on the food. However, when people come to Palusami, they experience similar food but at a sit-down restaurant. Our people see that the Samoan food we serve can be presented beautifully, like any other restaurant in the world. People are always amazed by it.” Jesse is also conscious of providing a Samoan cultural experience for guests. The Samoan way is for everyone to cook together and then come together to eat. Those who cook the food are acknowledged. This is replicated in the restaurant with Jesse coming out of the kitchen to meet and talk with the restaurant’s patrons.

In the short time that it has been open, Palusami has garnered an excellent reputation for its cuisine, use of local ingredients and approach to community engagement. There have however, been challenges along the way. Consistency of supply has been problematic at times. Jesse has addressed this by not indicating specific cuts of meat for example (indicating “local pork” as opposed to “local pork fillet”) and emphasising the local and organic nature of the ingredients. Jesse has also worked with local producers to expand their offering, for example, teaching his meat supplier how to cure hams and make bacon. Jesse’s commitment to training and capacity building extends to the staff at the restaurant as well. The cooks in the restaurant are not culinary chefs and Jesse has trained them himself, “Our staff are amazing. We want our staff to feel like this is more than just a job. We make them feel as if they have ownership in this business as well” (Jesse Lee). Jesse has also developed direct supply relationships with local producers such as a village garden project in Poutasi Village which sees the villagers deliver produce to the restaurant, and families that grow tomatoes and others who can provide coconuts. In support of these local supply relationships, Jesse likes to advise his guests that by dining at Palusami, they are participating in the local food chain and supporting a network of local businesses and families. Indeed, every menu at Palusami includes the following statement: “Palusami Restaurant promotes the use of local produce and Samoan made products. All meat, fruit and vegetables are organic. Purchased directly from local farmers, fisheries and village families. Our goal is to give back to the farmers and our country through import substitution as well as promoting the farm-to-table movement.” Addtionally, Palusami encourages their guests to use the hashtags #supportlocalbusiness #buylocalmade #buysamoanmade when they post on Facebook, “We’re so worried about competing globally but what we need to realise is that we need to take care of our local market” (Ronna Lee Hadfield).

Jesse has aspirational goals for Samoan cuisine and local products, hoping that within the next 10 years, local food will be the norm. He sees this being achieved through encouraging local economic growth by sourcing local families to raise free range livestock and encouraging local farmers to grow the products required for the industry, “Our vaisu (fish cooked in coconut cream) that we serve at Palusami has noodle in it. The noodle is made out of taro. The laksa I make is made out of the turmeric that grows here. The Samoa that I want to see in 10 years will be serving fish’n’chips – made with local fish and taro fries. These are the alternatives I want to see the whole of Samoa implementing in 10 years” (Jesse Lee).