The Independent (UK)
You could call it the gastronomic upset of the night. At the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, it wasn’t the usual suspect who was called to the stage to accept the title of Best Cookbook of the Year.
This year, the writer-chef didn’t hail from culinary stalwarts France, Italy or the US. Nor does the recipient boast a world-class restaurant. Instead, the best cookbook of the year highlighted the cuisine from a small corner of the earth and knighted a chef from a gastronomically modest country.
New Zealand-born chef Robert Oliver beat out some formidable competition to land the title of best cookbook, which was announced last week in Paris. His book Me’a Kai was deemed superior toNoma, titled after the Copenhagen restaurant which was named the World’s Best Restaurant in 2010, and The Essential New York Times Cookbook.
Me’a Kai features the cuisine of six South Pacific island nations, Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Cook Islands.
But more than just entertaining anecdotes, colorful illustrations and innovative recipes, the book delves into deeper issues threatening local economies today: sustainable food, local farming and annihilating tourism, said Edouard Cointreau Jr., a spokesman for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
“It defends producers,” he told Relaxnews. “The Pacific islands are being killed by massive tourism and his book is saving the cultural traditions of the islands.”
Oliver’s win also marks the first time a New Zealand chef has taken the top spot at the awards.
“We’ve never seen a win from such small, modest origins,” Cointreau said. “They always come from prestigious chefs. This year was different.”
The two-year journey took Oliver into the kitchens of island home cooks who shared their recipes using fresh, local ingredients. But the inspiration behind the cookbook came from his time working in the Caribbean, where grand hoteliers were turning their backs on local farmers and resources at their doorstep in favor of importing most of their ingredients from abroad.
“It reminded me of my own country, Fiji and Samoa, which was exactly the same,” Oliver said in an interview with Relaxnews. “People didn’t realize how good their own food was. So, I wrote a book to change all that. I wanted to excite local chefs with their own ingredients. The project became a whole lot more.”
The 90-plus recipes highlight signature South Pacific island ingredients and cooking methods. The coconut, for instance, is used in all its incarnations – milk, flesh, oil and steamed – and forms the basis of island cooking, Oliver said. Fish is also a main ingredient.
“Most of the ingredients are grown organically. Before, that was a liability, but now, it’s a big asset,”
Oliver is hoping to replicate the recipe of his success from St. Lucia, where he helped wean the island off imported goods from 70 percent down to 20 percent and generate $2 million for the local economy.
“That’s what I want to do in the Pacific Islands.”
In fact, his next big project is to wean the resort island of Samoa off imported ingredients as well. He’s already secured the commitment of 17 resorts, which represents half the island nation’s economy, he said.
“I want this book to help the Pacific Islands rediscover their own culture and use that as a platform for their own economic sustainability,” he said. “We want to position the little island country as a world leader in sustainability.”
The book retails for $75 NZD (40 euros) and was released in April 2010 by Random House New Zealand.
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