Robert Oliver is a New Zealand chef who was raised in Fiji and Samoa. He has developed restaurants in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Sydney, "farm to table" resorts in the Caribbean and food programs feeding homeless people and African immigrants with AIDS in New York City.
Robert returned to the South Pacific to write his first book, Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific (Random House, New Zealand), with Dr. Tracy Berno and Fiji photographer Shiri Ram. Written with a development mission to connect Pacific agriculture to the regions tourism sector, Me’a Kai stunned the food world by winning top prize, "Best Cookbook in the World 2010," at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, considered to be the Pulitzers of cookbooks, beating the books from NOMA and The New York Times. At the 2015 Frankfurt Bookfair, Me’a Kai was named the 3rd Best Cookbook in the World for 1995-2015.
In 2013, Robert released “Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia” (Random House). In May 2014, this book won the “Best TV Chef Cookbook in the World 2013” at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing.
Robert is Chef Ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and is the presenter of REAL PASIFIK, a television series based on the food culture of the South Pacific. He was a keynote speaker at TEDx Auckland in 2013 and was one of the authors chosen to represent New Zealand at the Frankfurt Bookfair in 2012. In 2011 & 2012 Robert was Consulting Chef for NZ Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) in China, based in Shanghai. In 2014 and 2015, Robert is appeared as one of the judges in the New Zealand version of the hit prime time cooking show “My Kitchen Rules”. In 2015/2016 he is co-hosting the Maori cooking show “Marae Kai Masters” (Maori TV) with accomplished New Zealand actor TeKohe Tuhaka.
Robert is a WORLD CLASS NEW ZEALANDER in the KEA’s global network.
Winner: “Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific” (Random House) BEST COOKBOOK IN THE WORLD 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, Paris co-authored with Dr. Tracy Berno featuring Fijian photographer Shiri Ram.
Winner: "Mea'ai Samoa: Recipe and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia" (Random House) BEST TV CHEF COOKBOOK IN THE WORLD 2013, Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, Beijing co-authored with Dr. Tracy Berno featuring Fijian photographer Shiri Ram.
Finalist: New York Film & Television Award 2014 in Travel & Tourism (Zoomslide Media & TVNZ) for the television series REAL PASIFIK based on Robert’s work and the food culture of the South Pacific played in New Zealand (TVNZ 1) in September - October 2013 and being distributed to 70+ global networks. A second series is in production for late 2014 screening on TVNZ.
How did you become a chef and how you got interest in Pacific cuisine?
RO: I just spoke to this at a TEDx talk in Tahiti and these were my words which I think will be good:
I was born in NZ but had the astonishing good luck to be raised in the Pacific Islands
Imagine coming from New Zealand - where shopping was done in dreary, sanitized supermarkets- to the marketplace in Suva,Fiji- full of laughter, gossip, and endless amazing food.
And then something happened that my father calls an intervention. There was a dock strike when we arrived so none of the usual palagi ingredients were available - no flour, no bread, no potatoes- so my mother was thrown into the market to cook the family meals- and me along with her. So we learned how to cook taro and cassava instead of potato, and most of the time we had itchy throat from undercooked fafa leaves- all of you islanders will relate to this. In this - my destiny as a chef was mapped out for me!
But it was after living in New York for a long time and really integrated into the dynamic restaurant scene there and in Miami that I began to fully appreciate the unique beauty of South Pacific cuisine- you see, growing up in the islands, we often think " overseas is better", even in food, so it took me to go a long way away and immerse myself in a very different environment (New York) to get the right perspective. I mean we always loved our food! But I don't know that we thought of it as "cuisine" ….colonization was very thorough I guess- even down to the minds!
You have contributed immensely to rehabilitate Pacific cuisine and local food products and made a profound impact in the development of many islands. As a result many more local chefs that you trained source now to local farmers, use local ingredients and serve delicious food in hotels and resorts to local and international tourists. Could you give us insights on how you change approach to local food and local cuisine in the region?
Once you lift local cuisine, you automatically lift local agriculture, deliciously! Local cuisine REQUIRES local agriculture- so in the tourism setting, where chefs are the primary gatekeepers of the menus….what to do.
I have learnt that the media is powerful development tool. The 2 that I most use are cookbooks and television. Here's why!
Chefs love cookbooks. Cookbooks glamorize and package the cuisine, for the chefs to then interpret and do their own spin on. For many Pacific people, seeing their food- and often themselves- in our cookbooks was like seeing something they see everyday, but for the very first time. So cookbooks gives chefs a valuable tool to work with. The Pacific is small- so because the cookbooks as I write them are about local dishes and local chefs- the usually know many people in the book. This in turn engenders the creation of a “ food community” Some people would say why books, why not online. My response is: both are important, but books give the content authority. Cookbooks create a groundswell of pride and are vital repositories of often-disappearing cuisine culture. Pacific Island traditional food culture is disappearing. As Tongan Chef Uinita Kaloni said “ The traditional dishes we grew up with are drifting away. If we lose that, we are hopeless”
And the other is television. If you drive through any Pacific Island village at night, you’ll see the soft glow of a television set often from one or two central dwellings where villagers tend to gather. Not every home has one- but television watching has become a communal activity much as oratory gatherings did in the past. Shows with local content are popular, although there is a shortage of local programming with the high production values associated to Australian or New Zealand content. Television is still the “hero” communicator. Like books, television content denotes authority and glamour. My show, REAL PASIFIK travelled across the Pacific creating local food chef ambassadors has had terrific traction in the region, with many networks screening the whole series up 30 times. The shows success was due to its casting of local chefs in star roles. Also, Pacific Islanders enjoyed learning about the food from neighboring islands. Many commented on the pride they felt at seeing their own food culture being portrayed with such high value, and how the chefs were able to innovate and create with very familiar dishes that had until now considered to be too “typical”. The show has distinct Pacific personality and humour. Pacific people are natural talent for the camera! There is a shortage of quality local content- so anything that does get made of high quality attracts an instant and huge following and becomes the conversation piece of the nation! Terrific influence
It is as much about changing perceptions as changing diet or menus. The rest of the world has embraced farmers markets and the “local is better” mantra, but the Pacific has remained stuck in its “overseas is better” psyche. The Pacific however is likely the most appealing food destination of all- it is 35% organic, has dynamic urban and rural markets, vibrant local cuisine and passionate chefs. Coconut oil, so ordinary here, has become the darling of the food world.
Switching this thinking is the key to unlocking the health and economy of the region: in a sense, decolonizing with cuisine. Destination cultural cookbooks and Pacific focused food TV and other dynamic digital content are how to do that.
Food and gastronomy tourism is a significant driver in many economies across the globe. Based in your extensive experience of working in many countries, what needs to be done to better market the Pacific as a food tourism destination?
I don’t think that the tourism marketing agencies have fully cottoned on to the opportunity. I know that Fiji and Tahiti have both identified cuisine as integral to their destination platform- and this is awesome! Fijian and Tahitian cuisine both rock!
I think there is lingering trepidation about the readiness of local restaurants etc to execute the cuisine in a format that is palatable to foreigners- but I think this largely caution and maybe a little unfounded. What is a genuine concern is the lack of knowledge in the originating markets of the cuisine offering of the islands. Australia and New Zealand are the main originating markets for international visitors to South Pacific island countries
Regardless of the close proximity of those major markets to their Pacific Island destinations, international tourists’ knowledge of local cuisine and foods in the region is minimal at best. Visitors from longer haul markets, in Europe and North America for instance, have even less idea of what constitutes local food or cuisine. Food and cuisine are, however, integral parts of the culture and history of any destination. Because international visitors do not know about local food and cuisine, their experience of Pacific Island destinations lacks an appreciation of a major component of their host community’s history and culture.
So once again I come back to the power of television and cookbooks. Both create awareness of the cuisine in the tourism market, as does the ensuing media. In other words- you don’t have to buy the books or watch the tv to become aware that the cuisine exists- the “buzz” around them reaches the public anyway.
Read these words written by Mrs Suliana Siwatibau, an organic farmer and ethnobotanist in Fiji:
“To us - food mediates relationships, facilitates health, celebrates life and its achievements, defines identity, identifies culture and links us closely to the earth that gave birth to us. Therefore to offer our cuisine to the tourists –who are visitors to our land makes hospitality to them more whole. In the modern world it of course includes the stimulation of our economy as more tourists money is channeled to local farmers and processors”
You are increasing awareness in TV culinary shows of the richness of the Pacific food and the many ways of preparing it. Do you see the impact on consumers and society at large?
I see the beginnings!
I see awesome chefs emerging whose cuisine identity is locally focused, and to whom that also means working with local farmers- a greater sense of cuisine and the food chain itself becomes peopled and meaningful. Chefs like Rainal Sahai and Shailesh Naidu in Fiji, Dora Rossi, Joe Lutuvio Lam and Jesse Lee in Samoa, Sam Timoko in the Cooks, Votausi McKenzie in Vanuatu- they’re showing up everywhere.
And I see the Pacific cuisine story gaining traction in New Zealand and Australia. For New Zealand especially this is important as NZ has a large, dynamic community and is itself a South Pacific Polynesian nation.
Knowing your passion, enthusiasm and creativity, what’s your next challenge?
What has become very pressing for me is the issue of Pacific health.
The South Pacific is in a crisis. Every day, 2 Fijians have a limb removed due to diabetes, American Samoa, Nauru and the Cook Islands are the worlds most obese nations- with Tonga and Samoa not far behind.
There have now been 2 generations who have been raised under the umbrella of fast, processed and convenience foods. Small Pacific nations are vulnerable to the massive marketing campaigns of fast foods: marketing that is often passed off as truth. NGO Health initiatives tend to have been packaged into reduced components- less sugar, less fat, less fried food.
“Food colonization”, along with the landslide emergence of convenience foods, has had a shocking impact on Pacific Island health. Additionally, there is a notion in the minds of many Pacific people that “overseas is better”, testament to the power of marketing and the thoroughness of colonization.
Neither these imported foods, nor the processed foods that have deluged the region, are Pacific Island cuisine. The original diet was based on complex carbohydrates, seafood, lots of green vegetables, all forms of coconut and tropical fruit; a stunning whole foods cuisine. With this approach, the “less salt, less sugar” is taken care of all, but from a point of aspiration rather than agenda.
Domestically, the “whole food” traditional cuisine knowledge is the opportunity to combat the daunting NCD diet related health epidemic that is bringing the region to its knees.
The answer is right there in the Pacific backyard: in it’s farms, villages, and markets and in the dishes that Pacific grandmothers cook.
I remain undaunted by the enormous marketing budgets of the fast food companies- quite simply, there is a better story to tell: the story of South Pacific cuisine. Local cuisine can put our people on the right side of the future. It is the delicious answer to physical, economic and cultural health.
Our cuisine provides a greater sense of nourishment.
Now this next bit is important!
With cuisine as the hub, both health and tourism come together. Although usually viewed separately, they merge within the lives of Pacific island people in economy, health and strengthened by cultural identity: the story of the food is the story of the people.
Healthy local cuisine further enhances the “ pure food’ destination brand made possible by tourism awareness of the Pacific’s unique cuisines.
Chefs for Development by Robert Oliver and Dr Tracy Berno