Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dr Tracy Berno - Making Pacific Futures Brighter

I'm so proud to present an interview with Dr Tracy Berno, co-author of Me'a Kai. Dr Berno is a tourism academic and consultant who has worked in the Pacific for over two decades. In her research she highlights the use of fresh, local produce in tourism and hospitality, and this helps promote rural development and sustainable farming. 

I really admire the work Dr Berno does because it creates a potential for the average Samoan farmer, like my cousin Popo, to enjoy steady local demand for his produce from say, hotels and restaurants, instead of trying to scrape by with what tala and sene he can earn at the market. 

Dr Berno is an academic with vision, and her research benefits so many in our local communities. Read on to discover more about her work, her favourite foods and some great tips she's got for finding the best Pacific flavours.

Dr Tracy Berno
Tourism academic and Consultant
(Photo supplied)
1. Congratulations on your cookbook Me'a Kai winning the Gourmand Best Cookbook in the World 2010! Your co-author, Chef Robert Oliver, said that you cried when you heard the news. Can you explain your reaction and what the award meant to you? 
Thank you for your kind words. Winning Best Cookbook in the World was certainly a real honour. I did indeed cry when Robert and Shiri rang to tell me the news. I had been scheduled to fly to Paris to meet them for the awards, but unfortunately, Christchurch, where I live, was struck by a devastating earthquake only a few days before I was meant to leave. We live in the central city, which was badly damaged. I had to cancel the trip. Things were very grim in Christchurch, so when Robert told me that we had won it was just so uplifting - I was quite overwhelmed and burst into tears. My poor family didn’t know if I was crying because we had won or because we had lost!

We had worked on the book for several years and really poured our hearts and souls into it. We are all very passionate about the Pacific and the book was deeply meaningful to us. We were welcomed into the homes and lives of so many wonderful and interesting people through our journeys in the region. It was such a privilege to be able share their stories and recipes. I was excited just to see the book published, let alone win an award for it. The award was very special because it was about everyone who contributed to the book; through their stories that they so generously allowed us to share, the Pacific had captured the attention of the world.

2. Can you share with us one of your memorable highlights in the creation of your cookbook?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. There were so many memorable aspects to our work on the book. One moment that really stands out in my mind though was early on in our work on the book. Robert, Shiri and I met up at the Old Mill Cottage Restaurant in Suva. It was a typical rainy Suva day, and we sat under the veranda having lunch while the rain absolutely pounded on the tin roof. The Old Mill Cottage serves a range of really great Fijian food. We ate, we talked, we laughed and we planned the book – all while sharing a terrific Pacific meal. It struck me that we were doing exactly what we wanted to capture in the book. It was at that moment that I knew we were on to something really special.

3. One of the unique things about your cookbook is that it is not just a collection of recipes or a travelogue of the Pacific or a coffee-table book/souvenir. You and Chef Oliver intended for it to be a tool, highlighting potential links between agriculture and tourism. Can you tell us a bit more about this, and what the 'farm-to-fork' concept means for the average island farmer or for the average tourist? 
My involvement in the book came about through my academic research interests. As an academic, my interest is in working with communities to create benefits for them from tourism. I was fortunate to spend many years as a tourism academic in the Pacific and was able to travel extensively in the region. In my travels, two things often struck me – (1) where was all the great Pacific food that I ate in friends’ homes and in local restaurants and why couldn’t I get it in the resorts and tourist hotels, and (2) why were there so many imported foods when there was a range of Pacific products available locally.

These questions got me thinking about how better linkages between local agricultural producers and the tourism industry could be a means of creating benefits for communities who were not directly involved in tourism. This led to many years of research looking at barriers and facilitators for agriculture-tourism linkages along the supply-chain (from “farm-to-fork”). One of the many findings of the research was that it’s not just a matter of increasing agricultural production, or getting hotels and restaurants to buy more (i.e., it’s not all supply driven) – there needed to be a means of enhancing the food on the tourists’ tables to create a demand for the locally grown products. That’s where the idea of a book came in, a book that would highlight the foods of the Pacific in a way that would be appealing to the tourist palate and create demand for local cuisine, using the local products. In that way, the book would become a tool for helping to facilitate agriculture-tourism linkages, which would in turn, create benefits along the supply-chain from the farmers all the way to the tourists who get to experience a fresh, quality local cuisine.

Virgin Coconut Oil from
Women in Business Development Samoa
4. As a self-confessed 'gastro-nerd', what are your favourite Pacific ingredients?
I am glad you said ingredients, rather than ingredient! My kitchen is never without limes, chillies and coconut products. In fact, at the moment I have two drinking coconuts, one brown cooking coconut, five litres of organic virgin coconut oil and three types of dried coconut in my kitchen. Not to mention a few tins of coconut cream in the pantry for emergencies! If I have those three ingredients, I can create a meal out of anything.
When I can get a hold of them fresh, my other favourite products are ota (Fijian fern), breadfruit, jackfruit, pele, mangosteen and soursop. But they are all pretty hard to come by in New Zealand. These are the things that I crave and seek out first when I am back up in the region.

5. What Pacific ingredient do you think deserves more attention abroad? 
Coconut. I don’t think people appreciate either the nutritional properties or the versatility of coconuts.

6. Is there anything you refuse to cook or eat? Sea-slug innards? Palolo worms? Fruit bats?
I can honestly say that I will try anything once, and I have tried some very odd things over the years. However, I will confess to a preference for what is on the outside of God’s creatures, rather than what is on the inside. 

7. Do you have a favourite Samoan food or drink?
I have only just returned from Samoa just over a week ago, so Samoan food is still on my mind. I love a good palusami. I also really like breadfruit that has been cooked over a fire. I was down at the market on most days buying palusami and beadfruit for my lunch. I also really like oka and poke. I think I ate one or the other most days, and one night I had poke as a starter and oka as my main! This trip I tried some lolepopo (Samoan ‘lollypop’) for the first time, which was just delicious – a new way for me to use coconut!

Oka (Fijian kokoda) featured on the cover of Me'a Kai

8. Most of my readers are living outside the islands and want to recreate the flavours of their childhoods in their own kitchen. Do you have any tips or advice for making island food taste authentic outside the islands?
Explore your local ethnic markets and grocery stores to get the freshest products as you can. Talk to staff and other shoppers and ask where else they shop – I have found many hidden gems that way. The best food comes straight off the plantation, so get into your garden and start growing some of your own. In my backyard I have cumquat, lemon and lime trees, lemongrass, chillies and coriander, snake beans and Chinese greens. We’re just cleaning out and refurbishing our glasshouse and once we have done that, I will be growing passionfruit, mountain pawpaw and other warmer climate products as well. If you can’t find it in the shops – grow it yourself!
Also, get together with your friends to cook. A meal prepared and shared with friends always tastes more like home.

9. Can you tell us about your next projects? Or what directions you would like to explore?
Robert, Shiri and I have recently started on a book on the food of Samoa. We were all just up in Samoa collecting recipes, photographing food and gathering information about local products, particularly organics. We had a great time working together again (the first time we have all been together since the launch of Me’a Kai), eating, sharing a few jokes and catching up with friends. It’s still fairly early days (Robert and I still have a lot of writing yet to do), but I am very excited about how the book is starting to shape up. The interest and support we received up in Samoa was just amazing. And I came home with a suitcase full of organic virgin coconut oil, koko Samoa, breadfruit and taro chips and Samoa’s own chili sauce!

I have also just started a new position as Associate Professor (Tourism and Development), so I am looking forward to extending my research to look for more ways of assisting communities to benefit from tourism and continuing my research in the area of agriculture-tourism linkages.

Taro chips from
10. Is there anything else you would like to share with my readers?
I’d like to encourage all your readers to travel well and really immerse themselves in the local culture. Try the food, buy local products, respect and enjoy the local culture. That way both you and your generous hosts will get the most benefits out of your shared experience.
If readers are interested in what Robert, Shiri and I are doing, please follow Me’a Kai on facebook. You can also follow us on
And of course – make sure you keep an eye out for our new book on Samoa when it is released. We’ll keep you posted!

Thank you Dr Berno for your generous time and for your continued support of our local agriculture and tourism industries. I hope that your home in Christchurch is restored as soon as possible. Thanks again for taking the time to answer all my questions. 

Dr Berno and her team are doing wonderful things for Samoa with their newest project. So readers, please show them some support by liking the Me'a Kai Facebook page. And stay tuned for the release date of their new Samoan cookbook.


  1. I was just wondering about the color of the Virgin Coconut Oil from Women in Business Development Samoa with the image that you have posted here. It's almost transparent and I'm thinking if it's really coconut oil or coconut water? I'm actually using a brand of virgin coconut oil and its color is white but not so clear. Is this one refined?

    1. Hi Valerie, the oil in the picture is transparent because it's in its liquefied state (Samoa is a tropical island so it's almost always warm). When coconut oil solidifies, it is creamy white and opaque.

  2. wooooowwww...i lurve you coconut answer panipopos, ...worded like the true coconut chef extraodinaire that you are. I love my copy of the Mea Kai and visitors to my house LOVE IT too....i'm gonna link this blog entry to mine if its okay with you!

    1. Phew, for a minute there I thought you were gonna say, "worded like the true coconut that you are" course, link away. I'm trying to get the word out about Dr Berno and Chef Oliver so that when their Organic Samoa book comes out next year, they've got loads of Samoan support.