Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chef Robert Oliver - The Pacific People's Chef

Chef Robert Oliver is one of the Pacific's culinary heroes. Together with Dr Tracy Berno (co-author) and Shiri Ram (photographer), he took Pacific food to the world in their pioneering book Me'a Kai. And the world responded by naming Me'a Kai Best Cookbook in the World 2010 at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, beating out such hefty competition as Noma (from a two Michelin starred restaurant), Natura Kuchni Polskiej (from a Michelin 'Rising Star' restaurant chef) and The Essential New York Times Cookbook. 

I caught up with Chef Oliver while he was in China, and he graciously told me about his next project which is poised to do wonderful things with and for Samoan food. Throughout our interview, Chef Oliver's passion and enthusiasm for what he does is unmistakable. He's a man with a clear mission who, despite his culinary fame, remains humble ("I don't consider myself to be a celebrity chef") and hard-working. In fact, he has worked tirelessly for years to bring good food to the table, whether it be for his own restaurants in Miami or Las Vegas, or for resorts in the Caribbean, or even for the homeless or underprivileged folk in inner city New York. Let's find out more about what he's doing for our tiny little country of Samoa.

Congratulations on your cookbook Me'a Kai winning the Gourmand Best Cookbook in the World Award. How did you and your team celebrate?
I was at work in Shanghai one day and I got a call from a number I didn't recognise and this booming French man comes on and says, "Is this Robert Oliver?". I said, "Yeah". He said, "This is Edouard Cointreau [President of Gourmand International]. Your book is just incredible. There's been nothing like it. You've taken a risk. You've broken the mould. And you're shortlisted for the Best Cookbook in the World Award." I actually had to sit down, I couldn't believe it! I called Shiri and Tracy right away. Tracy actually burst into tears. It was all such a project of the heart and it was a very brilliant but hard project. 

Did you know that Samoans came to Paris to support us? I still get very moved when I think of it. And the thing that has been best about the win is that it hasn't been just 'our' win. It's been a win for the whole Pacific. It's an affirmation that the right stuff is coming out of the Pacific. When I was in Fiji this year [for the South Pacific Food and Wine Festival 2012] people were just so honoured by the win. They feel recognised in a very nice way. A lot of the profiles of the food producers have gone up, so they're suddenly on the radar. These are things that we didn't anticipate. The community and their support has been really amazing for us and that's our energy moving forward actually.

Your next literary project is Organic Samoa, in which you'll be creating a tourism cuisine supplied by local organic farmers. Can you tell us a bit about it?
We always meant Me'a Kai to be the beginning of something. And I'm so grateful to the guys in Samoa - actually, there's only one guy, the Prime Minister, and the rest are all women - that are making things happen for me. Sonja Hunter, who is head of Samoa Tourism, has been an absolute soldier on this whole thing. And the women from Women in Business Development, who were already heading in the direction of Me'a Kai, have been wonderful. The Samoan project has been really creative as a result of the Gourmand award. It's the result of two years of intense lobbying during which the Prime Minister of Samoa has been absolutely amazing. He's really gone out of his way to make this project happen.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi
Prime Minister of Samoa
Random House (New Zealand) is publishing again. They took a massive risk publishing Me'a Kai because publishers usually look for what's commercially viable and don't put money into books where the market is too small. But because Me'a Kai had such runaway success that no-one anticipated, and we've built a really amazing community around Me'a Kai, Random House liked the idea of this next book.

Now that we've got this profile from Me'a Kai and the award, one of the things we can do with it is make it effective in the communities that we were originally based in. In Samoa, it just seemed obvious that here we have over 500 organic farms and yet there's no organic content, or very little, on the hotel menus and so its not on the tourism brand. And also, Samoa's got diet-related health problems. None of those things together make sense.

So Samoa has just stepped up. Samoa so often does step up, by the way, in the Pacific. There's a real entrepreneurial sense in Samoa that I've just been overwhelmed and so happy about with this project because it's going to make it into a great book, and thus a great movement and a great activity. 

It sounds like a lot of work on top of all your other projects, as you're also the Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand Ambassador there in China. How do you balance it all?
I realised early on that I was a horrific manager of people. I mean, I have trouble managing myself! I was told I needed a personal assistant, someone to deal with this and someone to deal with that. But that didn't feel right to me. So I do have trouble, but I've got fantastic partners. After the Gourmand award, we had big publishing deals come our way, but we thought 'What are we about?'. We wrote Me'a Kai as a celebration for the Pacific of their own cuisine so that it would be linking to tourism and it would be connected to day-to-day life. With the Samoan project, we're saying, 'This is how you do it [sustainable cuisine]. This is an activity.' We're pretty excited about this next project. 

Do you have a favourite Samoan food?
Oh, I've got lots. I love the curried octopus. And I love Ofupua'a - Pork Heart and Liver in Soy and Ginger. That's incredible.

These aren't things you would expect to eat at a fine dining establishment. Are you determined to take locally cooked Samoan food to those heights?
Yep, and actually, we're doing that in Auckland. You know, I was never going to do restaurants again, because I've had restaurants in the past, including a high profile restaurant in Miami. But there's a reason to do it now, for Me'a Kai and for Pacific cuisine.

Our 'Kai Pasifika' restaurant is due to open in 2013 on the Auckland waterfront. It will be headed by restauranteur Richard Hall, who has an extensive international background in the business, and it will be the quintessential Auckland dining experience, offering the beautiful cuisines of the South Pacific.  

The restaurant concept is based on Me'a Kai, so it will be the face of Pacific food trade in New Zealand. But more than anything, it's about celebrating Pacific Island food culture and having somewhere fantastically Pacific to go to in Auckland. 

I've seen you say in another interview that Samoan coconut cream is the best. Could you please tell us why?
It's now out of business actually. It was called Fiafia Pacific Coconut Cream and it was made in Samoa. It was the only coconut milk that first of all, didn't have any additives in it, and you could taste that. Also, it had a real roundness of flavour. It's something that you find in Pacific Island coconuts that's different from Asian coconuts. 

Is there anything you won't cook?
Not really. We can't avoid pisupo [canned corned beef]. We have to have a recipe with pisupo in the book because the pisupo story is important to Samoa. But there's a whole lot of Samoan recipes that have been pulled out of use and I want to bring them back and put the spotlight back on them because I think they're a lot healthier than the pisupo, lamb flaps and chicken backs that have become so central to Samoan and also Tongan food culture. But I'm not writing a health book or here to judge anyone or tell them what to eat. We just want to put the focus on the amazing organic produce that is being locally grown.

A lot of original Pacific foods were natural and what people are now calling 'organic' farming is actually the way islanders had farmed for many centuries. 
And that's the reason behind the organic movement in the Pacific. It's not to create 'organic'. It's to preserve the integrity of the original land and ocean and water. Organics is the mechanism which maintains Pacific cultural integrity in relation to farming. I think people think of 'organics' as being this hippy thing, but in the Pacific, the goal is to create a legal framework that stops things going wrong. Samoans understand this because the Samoan Prime Minister is the Head of the Pacific Island Organic Taskforce. 

Most of my readers at are home cooks. Do you have any advice that can help make our food more like yours (ie. better tasting, better looking, just...better)?
The whole of Me'a Kai is home food. It's not restaurant food. I think that's one of the reasons it's so successful. If anything, we're learning off the home cooks and not the other way around. 

That leads me to my next question. You've had a lot of success getting recipes from home cooks in the Pacific, but one of the most common complaints here at is that no-one shares their recipes (and we're talking about our own mothers, aunts, cousins etc!). So, how do you get your recipes from people?
I don't know what the problem is because I have no trouble whatsoever. I was arriving at people's homes in Samoa with a photographer and getting their story and I really felt like these were stories that were waiting to be told. There's a whole lot more than a recipe that you get - the story of the person, the culture, the farming and all the loving anecdotes around food. That's what we got with Me'a Kai and that's what we're hoping to get again in Samoa, because Samoa has great personalities. 

I totally agree with you. In closing, is there anything else you'd like to share with my readers?
I just want to say that I'm thrilled at what you're doing because I think the more recipe sharing, the better. 

Thank you Chef Oliver for your generosity of time and spirit. You're doing such great things for Pacific and Samoan food. We wish you all the best with Organic Samoa and all your other endeavours.

Chef Oliver with his good friend Beatrice Faumuina
Chef Robert Oliver is heading off to Samoa this Saturday and will be based in the Pacific for much of the remainder of the year. He'll be bringing a food festival element to the Teuila Festival later this year, and be assisted by a celebrity guest who I'm not at liberty to disclose

And don't think that this is the last you've seen of Me'a Kai. Chef Oliver has been working closely with Gourmand and Le Cordon Bleu to bring this fabulous cooking text to life. And in fact, Me'a Kai is even being made into a TV series by Zoomslide Productions. The effects of Chef Oliver's work seems to know no bounds.

If you see Chef Oliver out and about, please show him your support for his work on Organic Samoa. He's at the helm of a movement that is going to transform the way that we, and especially the world, see Samoan food. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cook Island Doughnuts

Now, why is a Cook Island recipe on a Samoan food blog?

Well, while I was on vacation these past few weeks, I taught my family how to make Cook Island/Raro doughnuts. The first time I demonstrated it, I made 50, and they were gone in less than 24 hours. The second time we made them, we doubled the recipe so there were 100 doughnuts. 'Should last at least two days', I thought. 
Not even. 
Again, gone in less than 24 hours. 
For the health and safety of my family, I didn't dare attempt a triple batch, but be warned: Samoans LOVE these doughnuts. 

My late Cook Island aunt used to make these and sell them at the markets in Otara, New Zealand. She would sit there with her styrofoam box filled with warm doughnuts, bagged by the dozen. She never sat for longer than an hour or two before all her doughnuts were sold, customers often being turned away. I wish I could say that the following recipe was hers but, bless her soul, she did not pass her recipe on to me

This recipe, which reminds me exactly of my auntie's doughnuts, comes from researching the internet, making Dutch Oliebollen every year, and experimenting on my lovely family who were willing - a bit too willing - to taste my creations.

Cook Island Doughnuts
(makes 50)

4 packages (28 g) dried yeast
10 cups (1.25 kg) flour
4 tablespoons (50 g) butter, room temperature
2½ cups (500g) sugar
pinch of salt
3 (180 g) eggs
1 cup (240 ml) milk
4 cups (1 L) warm water

Put everything in a very large bowl, pot or if you really don't have anything else, a bucket. Mix until well combined (no dry flour patches). 

Cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise until doubled in volume. Can't tell you how long this will take because you could be in Alaska or you could be in Africa and rising totally depends on the temperature of your kitchen, the humidity of the air, your elevation levels...figure at least an hour.

Once doubled, start heating up your oil for deep-frying. We want to have it between 320-350° F (160-180°C) by the time we go to fry. Make sure the oil is at least 10 cm deep. Oh, and go get a chopstick. You heard me right, a chopstick. This is essential for the recipe.

Back to the dough. Stir the mixture down and then scrape out the very sticky dough onto a well-floured bench. Well-floured in this case means at least a centimetre layer of flour on your work surface, but add only as much flour as you need to keep the dough from sticking to your hands. If you add way to much flour at this point, your doughnuts will turn out hard. If you don't add enough flour, your doughnuts won't hold their shape. Ah, I never said this would be easy.

Roll out balls of dough just smaller than the palm of your hand - OK, lapsing into Samoan style recipe instructions here, but I forgot to weigh each doughnut. I think they were roughly 3 inches (7.5 cm) wide. If it helps, remember that we aim to get 50 doughnuts out of this recipe. 

Once the oil has reached temperature, begin frying the doughnuts by picking up a ball of dough, piercing it with your thumb in the centre to make a doughnut hole, and then sliding the doughnut into the hot oil carefully. Immediately put the chopstick in the doughnut hole and swirl the doughnut round and round to enlarge and form the hole. 

Fry both sides of the doughnut until golden brown. Remove with your handy chopstick and then continue frying. You may think you've made 50 doughnuts but in reality, after every member of your family has done a 'taste test' you'll end up with about 25. 

Best enjoyed warm with a hot beverage, ie. Koko Samoa.

Photo supplied.
Speaking of which, I received an email from another Koko Samoa supplier. Poulalo gets her Koko directly from her sister in Samoa and is able to ship or deliver to any customer in Queensland, Australia. All proceeds go to children's education. If you are interested in some fresh, flavourful koko, please email her or call her cellphone (0434383453) Queensland customers only. 

One last thing before I go. If you make my recipes, please leave me some feedback - good or bad. I love to hear if things are working for you and also if they aren't. And photos are welcome anytime!