Business Day / Stuff.co.nz
Chef Robert Oliver wants to see genuine Pacific cuisine appreciated and enjoyed, both around the world and in the islands.
As a child, the New Zealander moved to Samoa and Fiji with his family – an experience he described in his column for website Huffington Post as like going from black and white to colour.
He fell in love with island cuisine and has since published two books on Pacific food and opened an acclaimed Pacific-themed restaurant in Miami, Florida. He works with the United Nations developing programmes for organic farmers in Samoa to sell their produce to commercial kitchens.
At present 70 per cent of food tourists eat on the islands is imported. In his television show Real Pasifik, Oliver challenges resort chefs to create menus with locally grown food.
His second recipe book, Mea’ai Samoa, was recently published by Random House. His first – Me’a Kai – won the Best Cookbook in the World award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris in 2010.
Oliver, a chef ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu, has run restaurants in New York and Las Vegas, but is keen to one day open a Pacific-themed restaurant in New Zealand.
“I think the best part of Pacific cuisine had not been particularly brought forward and was poorly understood. It’s always been a great cuisine, it just hadn’t been packaged well,” he says. “That’s what my job was. I’m seeing a groundswell of enthusiasm for local food but certainly my first book [Me’a Kai] was the first to put it into one articulate package.”
His favourite Pacific dish is the Samoan poke, a sesame ginger raw tuna salad with limu, which is fresh seaweed, and big wedges of fresh coconut. “Having it on a hot day with a big beer is perfect.”
Pacific food is on trend at the moment, with products like coconut oil and coconut water wildly popular.
“I was in [supermarket] Whole Foods in LA a few weeks ago and there was an absolute hunger for new tropical products and organics, for products made by small producers. There is a rightful distrust of the big food producers,” he says.
“Organic, tropical and the artisan producers are what the Pacific does really well.”
While living in New York several years ago, Oliver created Earth Action, a restaurant-based programme supplying meals to the hungry and homeless. He also worked as a volunteer producing meals and giving cooking lessons to HIV-positive teens, and taught at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
A Pacific-themed eatery, called Suva, that he owned with his friend, actress Marisa Tomei, was “just the place for a while” and received a 5-star review from the Miami Herald.
“I just had a whole lifetime of pineapple and coconuts that I hadn’t really put on the plate so that’s what that restaurant was. It’s what made me realise the viability of Pacific cuisine in the market.”
While he thinks New Zealand is going through a cultural surge, he wouldn’t say most Kiwis see it as an Asia Pacific nation yet.
“When I came back from the islands I was naively surprised to realise most New Zealanders don’t think of us as a Pacific nation although most Pacific Islanders do.
“I’m so glad there’s such a big Asian community because there is such great food here now,” he said.
He was spending the summer holidays between Hawke’s Bay and Auckland with family. “I love our trees and the real distinct New Zealand look to all the bush here. I love just gallivanting around Auckland, it’s becoming such a fantastic city.”
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