President of the Cook Islands Chefs Association, Chef Sam Timoko is devoted to promoting traditional Polynesian cuisine not only at local level, but also internationally.
Chef Timoko received his training in New Zealand at the Auckland University of Technology.
Chef Sam Timoko, you advocate a healthy and traditional Polynesian cuisine locally and beyond. Could you tell us about your career as a chef and how you came to be interested in cooking?
Cooking from a very young age helping my mother at the weekends baking cakes, pastry & bread goods at home and Polynesian foods in our household, on the marae with other extended family for gatherings. I constantly found myself in the kitchen as I developed a passion for food. My interest at that point in time was in Western food as my family’s knowledge and practice of this was limited and I wanted to pursue a career as a Chef.
I started my Chef training at the age of 16 in Auckland NZ and completed a 3 year apprenticeship gaining an international qualification in Culinary Arts through London City & Guilds.
Over the last 25 years I have travelled, lived and worked in many places around the world including Australasia, UK, USA, Europe and Asia learning the fare of that continent and the historic foundation and stories behind food as I went along.
The lifestyle of the Polynesian has changed somewhat from the days of hunting & gathering, foraging the land and the sea were a communal affair compared to the gathering food in a shopping trolley and buying products that were unheard of back in the day. A very active lifestyle to say the least! These days it is far from that and health effects can be seen throughout the entire region. The Polynesian diet used to consist of root crops, breadfruit, fresh fruits, juices, nuts, cooked greens of the root crops such as Taro, Yam and Kumara, Sea Birds, Fish & local Pork. These products still surround us and many are often found fallen to the ground rotting.
You have worked in top restaurants around the world and have decided to share your knowledge with young and local chefs. Could you tell us more about this experience? You are the President of the Cook Islands Chefs. Can you tell us more about the main activities for promoting local cuisine and the links with local producers and processors?
The knowledge, skills and ideas I have picked up over my career goes straight back in to our community, to me is what it is all about. Most of my Chefs, my students would never have the opportunity to travel as much as I have and passing on this knowledge to further develop their skills in the restaurants that they work and international competitions only enhances the hospitality, service and needs of guests coming to the Cook Islands.
As President of the Cook Islands Chefs Association this gave me a platform to promote all things Culinary in particular our Chefs and our food on the international stage. Promoting our food through various initiatives including our National Chef competitions that focus on both international & local foods. Local food demonstrations focus on the use of local produce. Engaging with local farmers, our Ministry of Agriculture has been great in the awareness of seasonal availability, planning of crops, the rediscovery of produce from our traditional heritage and a sound co-operative approach to supply vs demand. Local produce is key to the production of local foods as we promote local cuisine we promote local farmers and agriculture. Although Cook Islands traditional food is prevalent amongst local gatherings, ceremonies and in the home – it is almost non-existent in Restaurants across the country of which I am a strong advocate of the transition of local food, traditional techniques to be incorporated in to the dining scene here in the Cook Islands. Currently we import about 70 – 80% of product and produce from abroad due to Restaurants and Resorts on the island producing Western-style menus not indicative to our region, expensive to purchase and leaves waste to our native crops which are being underutilised.
Do you think that head chefs have an even more strategic role to play in the promotion of gastronomic tourism at a local, regional and international level?
Of course they do and can influence change however this change needs to be supported by the employer, the corporations, business owners as they (and we) need to see the value of our food on the international Tourism arena. Chefs are great at creating new dishes out of traditional heritage foods and they can be worked in or re-modified if need be to the tastes of the targeted tourists who in actual fact want to see these either different or unusual things on a menu when they visit a different country for example if you were to take French food out of France then why would there be a reason to go there? Gastronomic Tourism identifies Culture, history and it’s people as it is so intertwined with our past and will determine our future. Holding on to these skills and passing the knowledge on is something we all strive to support and make change to our current status.
What else are you working on, any future plans?
We just launched “TAKURUA” a couple of months ago of which I had the pleasure of working on with my good friend Rangi Johnson. This initiative forms part of the basis of the Cook Islands Cuisine Strategy and will feed in to the creation of food tourism in the Cook Islands. TAKURUA let’s us delve in to our past in all aspects of culture & food. It makes us understand ourselves and celebrate that today with new eyes towards the future, it is a nod to our ancestors and the continued development of what they created and where we will take it next. http://www.thecoconet.tv/coco-talanoa/events/takurua-food-and-feasts-of-the-cook-islands/.
Through the World Association of Chefs Societies we are -connected with the World Heritage Cuisine Summit which this year will be held in India and is an initiative which the aims to preserve and pass on to the next generation the traditional recipes and food cultures of each nation. In order to promote the same and bring back the age old recipes and food habits. We will be sharing information and feeding in to this committee to also gain an insight to better promote and lobby our own.