Entertainment / Stuff.co.nz

Robert Oliver: the chef champion of the pacific

There’s colour, smells, gossip, vibrancy and everywhere, food.

A boy walks through the market, his white skin in stark contrast to the brown faces around him. His mother is stressed and unsure, but he’s taken the first step on a new road.

He will go on to become an accomplished chef, win awards, head development work, become a television personality, and – when he can – return to that magical marketplace in Suva, Fiji.

Now, many years later, Robert Oliver is a two-time Gourmand Award-winning chef and food writer, but still remembers that day.

He had moved to Fiji with his family where his father set up YMCAs which did “development work” – he makes the air quotes with his fingers.

“I don’t like to call it that, because it’s usually me that gets developed,” he says.

He still does similar work in the Islands, following in his father’s footsteps, spurred on by that marketplace.

“It’s all gossip and drama and fruit and vegetables. Arriving in this country where everyone was brown and just the shifting gears of that coming from New Plymouth. The colour and hearing people really belly-laughing everywhere, it’s so exciting, you feel really alive,” Oliver says.

While it sparked his lifelong love of Pacific food, he concedes it was not so simple for his mother. “You know, she’s got three whinging kids and couldn’t figure out how to cook beef that took a year to cook, taro that made your throat itchy. But we found out over time. It was full immersion. Everything is so different and the local food is so vibrant and celebrated.”

He went on to spend time in Samoa, New Zealand, Sydney and then New York, where he stayed for 17 years.

You’d think it would’ve been a massive shock, going from Island life to the city that never sleeps, but Oliver found the “vibrancy of the Islands” again in New York.

“It’s like the university of life, it’s so creative and so alive, where all this great thinking emerges,” he says.

It turns out he loves being a foreigner. He lived in China for three years without knowing the language, and loved the feeling it gave him.

“It’s just a way of being there, being in it but still observing,” he says.

It’s how he’s built his career. His award-winning books, Me’a Kai: The Food & Flavours of the South Pacific and Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia were made by observing, documenting, and sharing Pacific food culture.

“History is littered with observers, people who write about other cultures because they bring the onlooker’s perspective. That’s what I do,” he says. “But because I was raised in the Pacific, I have this deep love of it which is unshakable, and it’s those things combined which make it work.”

So when he’s thought, “I’m just a palagi, everyone’s going to shoot me down”, it’s this other vein of thought which pushes him through: for example, when Oliver was asked to host Maori TV’s Marae Kai Masters. “But then I just thought, what an honour to be asked,” he says.

And working on that show and of course, My Kitchen Rules, where he is a panellist, Oliver has had a chance to see New Zealand’s unique food identity emerging, with contestants in both bringing local food and flavour to their dishes.

Seeing that “captures people’s hearts”, so that even if they don’t realise the cultural impact these television shows are having “they feel it; we are a Polynesian nation”.

“I love the Maori and Pacific food relationship, it’s community first and the giving and sharing of food embodies that, the mana around who gives you food and what you do with it – I love it,” he says.

“Kai is not just a plate of food, it’s a whole system that relates to nature and identity, people and nutrition and environment and sacred things; if you look at food that way it starts to become part of a bigger picture.”

We need a Pacific restaurant in Auckland, he says. Something that shows off these pacific foods and embodies those associated feelings.

“I should probably take charge of that,” he says.

There is a cafe in Sandringham he says is doing well with Polynesian cuisine (it’s called Blue Rose, and if you go, apparently the Koko Samoa cake is a must), but what we need is a proper restaurant, preferably in central Auckland.

“I am thinking about it. I’d like it to be downtown, just to say: ‘this is Auckland’. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I think it’s the next thing. I think it would say: ‘we are a Pacific nation’, and that’s important to me,” he says.

But before that can happen, he has two more books to finish and a couple more tight-lidded television projects to worry about.

“You know, you don’t make a lot of money from it…but I feel like I’ve done something important and I want to live a meaningful life, and this has given me the opportunity to do so,” he says. “I mean, what is better than living a life where you have the opportunity to do what you love and it has a great effect on the community you love? That’s a blessing.”

 – Stuff

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My acceptance speech at the KEA WORLD CLASS NEW ZEALAND AWARDS

I have had a long association with KEA during my years in New York and Shanghai- so this feels great...there are many dreamers like me out there but few get acknowledgment in the public arena- so thx KEA for valuing what I do …I am truly grateful

All of the work credited to me of course is the combined efforts of many and this recognition lifts us all. I have been fortunate to work with some brilliant collaborators. … firstly I’d like to acknowledge my co author and writing partner Dr Tracy Berno, and photographer- the magic man! Shiri Ram

You need vision to see vision, so I'd like to salute Mr Edouard Cointreau founder of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards who in seeing our vision gave us the thrilling break that put us on the path we walk today
I am seriously grateful to the tenacious Heather Lee and Anna Marbrook of Zoomslide Productions who painfully and patiently schooled me in the world of television with my first show REAL PASIFIK based on our books

I have also loved my roles on both My Kitchen Rules and Marae Kai Masters and wish to thank Imagination TV, Television New Zealand and Maori TV… and in particular Cindi Lucas ….and I have loved sharing screen time with 2 of Aotearoa’s biggest talents who are both dear friends…and they are Nadia Lim and Tekohe Tuhaka (I learned heaps from you TK..)
I wish to acknowledge my partners at Kai Pasifika restaurant…Auckland’s hot Pacific Island restaurant born thru the efforts of Richard Hall, Kenina Court, Repeka Lelaulu and our awesome chef Bertrand Jang
I speak for us all when I say it is our great honour and privilege to serve the Pacific community in Auckland, this Pacific city in this Pacific nation

I cherish my relationship with Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand and especially my friendship with its dynamic director Jenny Jenkins

I have amazing friends who have always thought the best of me…and man, that can get you anywhere in life…everyone knows the fabulousness of Beatrice Faumuina, and then there’s Gayle Anne Kelly of One Bowl Productions in Los Angeles, Maiki McKay, Shauna Flenady, Cindy of Samoa and the ever awesome Marisa Tomei….many of you know her as a Hollywood actress, but through our 30+ years of often outrageous friendship, I know her as a sterling soul. She was the first person I called when we won the Gourmand Award …I was in a state of shock at reaching such crazy heights and Marisa’s words to me were “But I’ve have always seen you that way”

I have been guided and mentored by a group of Pacific Island women. It’s not that they set out to teach me; it is that I learned EVERYTHING just by being around them.
They are Votausi McKenzie in Vanuatu, Papiloa Bloomfield Folikai in the Kingdom of Tonga, Adi Tafuna’i and Faumuina Tafuna’I in Samoa, and Suliana Siwatibau in Fiji. Through these women, I have been exposed to true leadership. It's a form of leadership that is based on the power of love, rather than the love of power….the kind that nurtures communities… … they saw the value of my work in the broadest sense- by looking back both to their own grandmothers and also forward to their grandchildren. The story of the food is the story of the people, and these women entrusted me with their stories, stories from the past that are also the blueprint for the future- in fact, I now view all of my work as the activation of indigenous knowledge, their knowledge.

And then there are the ones that have always been…my own whanau….my brothers Jeff and Richard, my awesome sister Shelley, beautiful Willa and handsome Sione, and my mother Jean who has loved and guided us all, she’s always believed in us, and with that in your life, you can fly.
3 months ago today, my beloved father left us…he was much more than a father to me, he was my mentor, my hero. Legacy is defined in many ways- often in buildings built, wars won, institutions founded, policies enacted.

But for me, the truly great leaders, the Martin Luther Kings, the Ghandis, legacy is something that is left in the people whom they affect, the social movements they inspire, the communities they enrich, the mindsets they ignite. This speaks to me of my father. He touched the lives of thousands of people and he gave me my mindset, the way that I think. He may not be here in person, but he is profoundly and absolutely here in spirit and I am my fathers son…so Tagaloafa’atautele Dennis John Oliver….although it is me standing here accepting this accolade, this pretty boy…this is really one for the whanau
Kia ora..vinaka vakalevu, malo lava..
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About Robert

Award winning Author, Chef Ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand/Pacific Islands, TV presenter of REAL PASIFIK and MKRNZ tasting panelist.

For event or booking enquiries please contact: Johnson & Laird Management
+64 9 376 0882
Current location: New Zealand

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