Cooking For Impact With Robert Oliver: A World Food Day Q&A

October 14, 2016

By Kendra Yoshinaga

Since 19 September 2016, we’ve been asking people to contribute to our Global Food Diary: a crowdsourced picture of what healthy eating looks like around the world. In honor of World Food Day, we’re wrapping up the Global Food Diary by talking to celebrity chef, author, and TV presenter Robert Oliver.

Oliver’s career has taken him all over the world, from New York to Miami to Samoa. He’s especially interested in the role that chefs can play in linking agriculture to tourism in the Pacific region. By serving traditional local foods instead of imported Western dishes, Oliver believes that chefs who serve tourists in the Pacific have a unique opportunity to boost regional economies. Oliver applies this principle in his own restaurants and champions chefs who do the same: in his report Chefs for Development, co-authored with Dr. Tracy Berno, Oliver profiles six chefs in Samoa and Fiji who integrate local foods into the tourism experience.

Oliver joined us to talk about how connecting Western audiences to traditional Pacific foods can empower local farmers and promote healthier lifestyles. And he shares one of his favorite recipes: a Samoan twist on poke (Hawaiian fish salad).

1. Tell me about how you started getting interested in food, especially in the context of the Pacific.

I grew up in Fiji. I came from New Zealand in the ‘70s, and it was kind of when supermarkets were taking off, and then I arrived in Fiji. The first day we were there-- I still remember this, I was only about 10-- we went to the market in Suva. It was the most amazing market, and to me it’s one of those great food destinations. I just remember, it’s like I came alive in that moment, and got kind of food-wise. Then there was a kind of intervention because there was a shipping strike. There was none of the usual Western, imported ingredients, so my mum had to cook from the market, and I did with her. And I never stopped cooking from then.

Why do I love food? I think I love the connectivity it creates. And I love that food in the Pacific context is really about sharing and extending welcome-- no one fights over food. It’s the ultimate peacemaker.

2. In your career as a chef, you’ve been exploring the ways that chefs can serve as a link between agriculture and commerce, especially in the context of tourism. So how did you come to realize the impact that something as simple as putting a certain ingredient on your menu could have?

When you’re in tourism, the menus are the market. The menus dictate what crops you use. And if you do local cuisine, the cuisine that’s culturally relevant to that island or wherever, it often requires-- it’s not just a maybe, but it requires-- local agriculture and crops.

A lot of crops have been lost. There’s a total role for chefs in this sense, in choosing these food items that are local and do reflect local culture, because that, in turn, reflects and is driven by local agriculture. There was a moment for me when I realized that there was a local cuisine culture that was gonna make it all happen, because a lot of the hotels in the Caribbean and the Pacific had a lot of Western food on the menu, and they just didn’t need local agriculture. They needed stuff from offshore. So it was quite literal-- it wasn’t a theory, it was actually quite literal.

3. How can chefs like you have an impact on what people choose to eat? For example, if people go to the Caribbean expecting to eat cheeseburgers the whole time, how can you influence them to eat more of the traditional cuisine?

Just by being champions. Chefs are the gatekeepers, as are the media, as a kind of shop front for food. So they can opt to be local champions. One person can make a huge difference.

In the Chefs for Development report, I’ve profiled six people who have chosen to work with local cuisine, work with local farmers, and make it work, because they think beyond the kitchen. They could just do their job and make it easy for themselves, but they’ve opted to create a legacy through their day to day work and through their menu choices and their supply choices. And they get to know the farmers. They get to know the village next door. It’s very heartfelt and meaningful to them, and it gives meaning to their own lives.  

This is why I spent so much time profiling chefs who maybe aren’t getting the attention they deserve, because when they get it, it communicates to them their value, but also it communicates to the tourists coming-- “Hey, let’s go to Dora Rossi’s place, because she’s using organic ingredients from the women farmers’ groups.” There’s a holistic matrix of demand and operations, and the chef at the center of it is the champion.

4. Tell me about your interest in connecting modern audiences to traditional cuisine. How can tapping into traditional cuisines play into promoting healthy choices?

The indigenous cuisine system is a whole food system-- there’s no processed food. The food comes from the ground, or the ocean, or the air. The health crisis in the Pacific wasn’t around when I grew up in Fiji. We didn’t have those issues-- there’s no way the advent of processed food and fizzy drinks has not caused that. Health approaches tend to be reductionist in that they say “Let’s cut out sugar,” or “Let’s cut out salt,” and they don’t look at the whole approach of eating and living.

There’s a massive opportunity to leverage real eating into any system where the solution is based on local culture, because that’s emotional and recollective and feels good. We all have our soul foods, and that’s the hook. I feel that that’s not been understood or capitalized enough and celebrated enough-- it becomes a celebration rather than an agenda or a diet.

5. In honor of World Food Day, do you have a favorite healthy and culturally significant recipe you'd like to share?

Poke is one of my go-to dishes when I arrive in Samoa. Technically, it’s a borrow from Hawaii, but Samoa has made it it’s own by serving it with fresh limu (sea grapes seaweed) and wedges of creamy crunchy popo (brown coconut). The tuna in Samoa is THE best-- so imagine the crunchy marine pops from the limu, the velvety luxuriousness of the tuna, the coconut which pulls it all together-- oh yeah, poke is the best!

Beverly Levi’s Amanaki Poke

Serves 4

Beverly Levi is the matriarch of the Levi family and is something of an institution in Samoa-- she owns the fish shop at the Apia Seafood Market, a fishing boat, and now the Amanaki Hotel on the waterfront in Apia. Yet this Samoan/Chinese/Danish/Norwegian wonder woman began her working life as a nurse! She and her late husband (a native Tokelauan who is much missed) worked as a team and built a life for their family in Samoa. When I asked her how someone with no background in hospitality ended up owning a hotel, she laughed out loud and said, ‘Well I own a fishing boat and I still can’t swim!’

The poke at Amanaki is served with limu. Limu is a terrific seaweed found all over the Pacific. It’s known as nama in Fiji and limu in Tonga, and is best eaten very fresh, after soaking in water to let the sand fall out.

Ingredients: 

500 g diced sushi-grade tuna
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
100 g sugar
¼ teaspoon finely diced fresh chilli
½ teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon diced capsicum
1 tablespoon finely minced spring onion
1 tablespoon cold water
fresh coconut wedges, to garnish
fresh limu, rinsed, to garnish
lime wedges, to garnish

In a chilled bowl, mix the tuna with the soy, sesame, sugar, chilli, garlic, ginger, capsicum and spring onions. Add the water and stir well. Serve with coconut wedges, limu, and lime wedges.

Reproduced with permission from Mea’ai Samoa, by Robert Oliver with Dr Tracy Berno.
Published by Random House (NZ). RRP $49.99. ©2013 text Robert Oliver, photographs Shiri Ram.