The Cook Islands-based Chef Rangi Mitaera-Johnson always had aspirations of working in the food world. However, instead of following her heart, she followed her head and after leaving school at a young age, she pursued more “secure” office work, and worked several part-time jobs cleaning and even had a six month stint in Japan contracted as a Polynesian dancer at a hotel. Finally, years of working in an office took its toll and an unhappy Rangi studied to become a Chef – and excelled, and the rest as they say, is history. Chef Rangi works mostly as a freelance Chef providing catering and consulting services and training in cooking school, where she promotes the use of locally sourced foods. She wears many hats, and also teaches communities in the outer islands how to cook sustainably and focus on foods they are surrounded by to minimise their dependency on imported foods. Chef Rangi has also worked alongside New Zealand Chef, Author and Television Presenter Robert Oliver. She has several recipes in Chef Roberts Me'a Kai Cook Book, while her Pearl Meat Cerviche Style recipe features in his TV series, Real Pasifik. Chef Rangi is a household name in the Cook Islands, and a passionate advocate for Cook Islands cuisine.
What is your current role?
I work mostly as a freelance Chef however I am also a pearl farmer and artisan and make my own pearl jewelry.
I provide catering and consulting services along with training at a cooking school.
I am involved in a project Raurau Akamatutu, run through the Office of the Prime Minister’s Climate Change unit.
Part of my role there is to conduct cook classes in the Cook Islands outer islands to teach small communities how to cook more sustainably and focus on foods they are surrounded by and minimise the dependency on imported foods.
The project also addresses how to manage household waste; recycling; and the reduction of chemical use in the home by introducing natural alternatives among other things.
I have been working with several government departments which have initiated a project called Takurua - introducing local Chefs to traditional foods, foods we no longer use and traditional foods which have historical connections to us.
I am also married and a mother of four teenage children.
Describe your childhood and growing up as a Cook Islander in New Zealand?
I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand with parents from who settled in Wellington in the early 1960’s.
I grew up with one other sister in a humble home that both our parents worked hard to buy.
Like many Pacific Islanders, we were brought up with strong Christian and cultural values.
My interest in food and cooking started at a very young age, through assisting in the kitchen (at my mother’s insistence) at various functions in the church and in the community.
I developed both a knack and passion for this and later enjoyed researching and trying out recipes.
When I left school at a very young age, I wanted to become a Chef, but the office work seemed more secure.
For several years I took part-time jobs cleaning and I even had a six month stint in Japan contracted as a Polynesian dancer at a hotel.
During my trip to Japan opened my palate to Asian flavours.
I was always asking friends there for recipes, looking for food demonstrations or getting involved in discussions relating to food.
Our manager in Japan was a Chef and took us to some of the best restaurants in Japan – some of them hours away.
While still at school, I would spend some holidays at my aunt’s in Hastings, where I picked, packed and preserved fruit and vegetables.
What part did food play in your family growing up?
Food is an integral part of any Pacific circle and it has always been significant in my family.
Sometimes a particular food item has a particular connection or status for a particular kind of event or function, and it is important to know and understand this throughout the Pacific so this knowledge is kept alive and passed on.
Some foods have important stories that connect to a certain time, place, people or even tribe.
This kind of knowledge is priceless and adds value and status to what you prepare and serve.
I love to share what I know with those that I cook for.
Many of my extended family members have worked in the food industry for years, so when we come together new recipes and dishes are proudly brought to the table for critique.
Who or what inspired you to become a Chef?
Several things really inspired me to become a Chef: my mother and our extended family, my community and the importance of food in our cultural life.
Food is an important part of my culture, and the foods that surround, influence and enhance my life and career have been just as diverse and important.
My background in cooking only took off only after years of working in an office took its toll.
I was unhappy and could no longer justify sitting at a desk, so I took up full-time study at Wellington Polytechnic, while working nights and weekends.
When I moved back to the Cook Islands in the 1990s, I was offered a Food and Beverage position in a new hotel and a few months down the road, I was then offered an Executive Chef role.
In 1997, I was offered a scholarship by the Dutch Government to take up a Hotel Management course in The Hague, with over 20 other industry people from around the world.
I find the Roux brothers and Julia Childs hugely inspirational, to name a few, but I think what really inspired me to become a Chef however, was choosing to do something I really loved.
In doing so, I found not only did I excel but I became hungry for knowledge, because in cooking, you never stop learning.
Why do you use locally-sourced foods in your cooking?
Utilising locally-sourced foods is really being smart in business.
As a Chef, you are constantly reminded about food costs; you develop a real appreciation of unique foods; and learn the benefits of fresh organic foods.
By cooking with in-season locally produced food, you maximise amazing flavours and also connect with foods that have a traditional value.
When quoting menus for customers, I include mainly local foods in my selection.
Locally-sourced foods tick all the boxes.
Why should Chefs in the Cook Islands need to advocate the use of locally-sourced foods?
These foods are part of their personal identity; and their past and history that will enrich their career in the food industry.
It gives them a unique opportunity as Cook Islanders to share their cultural food knowledge with people who love to visit our amazing country.
This sets them apart from everyone else.
How can Chefs in the Cook Islands promote “going local” even more?
We need to encourage and develop a strategic plan to share local food knowledge that connects each and every one of us to the many facets of local food.
This covers areas including agriculture, health, climate change, culture, tourism, education, trade and investment, transport and the outer islands.
We need to encourage new partnerships and get young people involved.
What do you want to achieve in your career in the next 10 years?
I would like to educate people in my community about the importance of growing their own fruit and vegetables for consumption or business, as well as connecting food knowledge with traditional knowledge, climate change, and education and business opportunities.
I also aim to encourage people to use locally-sourced products through training, videos/film, cooking schools, and social media.