The Sydney Morning Herald
A New Zealand chef has worked to give the traditional food of the Pacific Islands the dignity he believes it deserves.
When he went to Paris in March 2011, New Zealand chef Robert Oliver was so convinced that he wouldn’t win the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards that he was upstairs away from the action at the Les Folies Bergère theatre, where the ceremony was being held, as the winners were being announced. His cookbook, Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, was up against The Essential New York Times Cookbook and a culinary tome from Copenhagen’s renowned Noma restaurant. Me’a Kai’s win – which anointed it the best cookbook in the world – was the gastronomic upset of the year and a stunned Oliver was left stumbling around in the dark unable to find the stage.
Gourmand’s founder and president, Edouard Cointreau, saw it was far more than a mere recipe book with high production values: it was a culinary love letter from a smattering of islands in the South Pacific. “It showed how one cookbook could be very ambitious, and try to have an impact on society for health, food culture and local economy,” Cointreau says. Never before had such an exalted prize been won by such a humble book. Until then, for example, Samoan food, cooked on hot stones in fire pits, hadn’t even been considered cuisine.
Far away from Paris, on the opposite side of the globe, white churches appear ghostly in the watery pre-dawn light as we jolt over bumpy roads to meet Oliver at the Sunday fish markets in Apia, Samoa’s capital. Houses painted in exuberant colours and roads lined with scarlet hibiscus are lit by the rays of a tropical sunrise, as the villages come to life. Smoke drifts dreamily across the island; fires are lit and stones are heated for traditional Sunday lunch. Oliver is a dapper presence amid the dawn rituals of the market. Ample men carry huge tuna on their shoulders to cars that have seen better days, waiting to transport them home to their villages. Samoans, as everybody will tell you, love to eat. And Sunday, after church, is their feast day. Over breakfast in a cafe near the Apia fish market, Oliver tells me that when he is here, “I come alive.”
When Oliver launched Me’a Kai in May 2010, he was 50 with “just 40 bucks” in the bank. He was “broke and broken”, reduced to living with his parents in New Zealand. “My mum and dad saved me,” he says. He had spent two decades working at executive chef level in the United States, but then the global financial crisis hit. “I had moved all my money into two beachfront apartments in Miami,” he recalls. “I watched the property values drop way below the mortgage level and I couldn’t rent them anymore. I realised I was going to lose my only assets and it was horrifying.”
His partner of 13 years left him, too. “It was too stressful for him,” he says. “He’d always looked to me for security. I had a real serious breakdown.”
All this happened as he was travelling through the Pacific Islands researching and writing Me’a Kai. However, although he was financially and emotionally devastated, he was buoyed by a community of South Sea women who believed in his book project. So, exhausting what was left of his savings, he carried on with his research. Slowly and surely, he found something in which he truly believed – a sense of community and the world’s last undiscovered cuisine. Gradually, his priorities began to shift away from the material world. “It had lost its value,” he says.
Oliver was 12 when his parents moved to Fiji and then Samoa. His social worker father, whom he describes as “a kind of cultural listener … set up these amazing community self-development programs”. He still remembers the day he arrived in Fiji: the heat, “the smell of fresh tropical rainfall mixed with leaves and frangipani” and being “blown away” by the markets in the capital, Suva. “It was like going from black-and-white to glorious colour,” he says. He went to boarding school in Suva and, when his parents moved to Samoa, he continued his education in New Zealand.
After abandoning an arts degree at the University of Auckland – “I studied drinking and partying instead” – Oliver joined the then Kiwi exodus to Australia in 1981. In Sydney, he shared a house and worked with chef Robert Hedger, now an artist in Tasmania. Hedger had spent five years living and working in Thailand and pioneered fusion food in Sydney restaurants. “He was thinking globally while everyone else was doing béchamel sauce,” says Oliver.
Six years later, aged 27, Oliver went to New York “out of curiosity” and stayed for the next 20 years. He was struck by the numbers of people he saw living on the streets there. “I hadn’t seen homeless people before,” he says. “So I started bringing food home from the restaurant. Then I got other chefs involved. There were high-quality leftovers at the end of every night, so these homeless people were getting haute cuisine. It ended up becoming this huge food program that fed up to 2000 people a day. “To me, that was part of being a Pacific person: food is something you share. It is a basic agent of communication and relationship-making.”
In 2005, he accepted a job with Almond Resorts in the Caribbean, establishing restaurants in 17 resorts across Barbados and Santa Lucia. Most of the resort food was imported. He loved the earthy, exotic local dishes of these Caribbean countries but the locals didn’t think their own food was worthy of the resorts’ hotel menus. Determined to put their produce on the menus, Oliver set up “farm-to-table” programs, developing supply contracts with farmers who’d never before been called upon to grow commercial quantities of food.
The results were dramatic. “I saw the farmers I was working with break poverty cycles that had been there for generations.”
He understood, too, the stories of the people who tend the earth: the dramas, the heartbreaks, the humanity that’s involved in producing what we eat. “Rastafarians who tended their crops with a reverence … I had not seen before,” he writes in Me’a Kai, “and French Creoles who knew all the old crops from slavery days.” “Food goes right into real people’s lives,” he says now. Somewhere along the line, though, he adds, it has “stopped being food and just become a list of ingredients”.
In Samoa, the bulk of the food supply was, until recently, imported. These imports generally represented the worst, and most unhealthy, of Western foods. This bountiful land had become a dumping ground for cheap fatty meat, cans of corned beef, turkey tails and mutton flaps, which in New Zealand are used for dog food. Tinned fruit flooded in even as mangoes were falling from the trees. “That’s not Pacific food, it’s colonialism,” says Oliver.
As he travelled through Pacific regions such as Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tahiti writing Me’a Kai and later filming the television series Real Pasifik, which has aired in New Zealand and more than 30 other countries, Oliver worked with elders in remote villages who held knowledge about local food. “There were no cookbooks,” he says. “There was no creativity because the food was so poorly regarded by the people themselves. To be told your food is not good enough is very destructive.”
Dora Rossi’s family owns Paddles Restaurant in Apia. On a warm night, the windows open onto the harbour, where lights from sailboats wink on the water. In the distance, the white-washed columns of the city’s opulent new cathedral glimmer in the moonlight. “It has taken Robert to come here and show us what amazing produce we have,” says Rossi. “Most people who live out in the villages had to send their boys away to New Zealand to get jobs. What we’re doing here is giving families an income.” The changes go beyond economic: it’s about instilling cultural pride and an understanding of nutrition and the good health that flows from that. At Paddles, Rossi and her brother, Giovanni, serve dish after dish of snazzed-up local produce: yellow fin tuna ceviche with shredded green papaya, Samoan oka (raw fish and coconut milk); fish lasagne with smoked masi masi; seared tuna steak with a salsa of fresh local fruit and breadfruit wedges. Long tables of satiated Samoans bellow with laughter.
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