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. 


  1. Awesome! So exciting and now I must buy a new cookbook! :) Thanks!

    1. I probably have every cookbook ever written about Pacific food and keep swearing I won't buy anymore, but the quality of Me'a Kai surpasses all the other books I have put together. Can't wait for Organic Samoa to come out!