Interview with Recipes for Change Chef Robert Oliver
13 February 2020
What drew you to being a chef in the first place?
I always loved food - how it brings people together, the smells and flavours of new cultures. I guess I associate food most with gathering, communion. I remember the moment that I first felt “transfixed” by food and that was when, as a child, I first stepped into the food market in Suva, Fiji. It was full of laughter, life, ingredients and crops I had never seen before. As my family settled into life in Fiji, I soon grew to love it.
What drew you to promoting local indigenous culinary traditions in the South Pacific?
I was born in New Zealand, which is a Pacific nation, and grew up in Fiji, so I love the South Pacific and I’ve always felt loyal to it.
In terms of cooking, I was not classically trained - I went to the school of hard knocks. But I’ve worked for some great chefs; one in particular was Robert Hedger in Australia. I also lived in New York for many years and I see that as training too, in the sense of the treasure of global food cultures represented in the city’s restaurants.
How serious is the situation around poor health and nutrition (obesity) in the region?
It’s a crisis. Seventy-five per cent of the region’s deaths are associated with non-communicable diseases. Undernutrition is endemic and one in five Pacific children is stunted. It’s as big a crisis as climate change.
What are your favourite Pacific recipes?
I love them all - especially tuluk from Vanuatu, ika vakalolo from Fiji, palusami from Samoa, ngou’a from Tonga, uto drink from the Cook Islands, takihi from Niue, aigur from Papua New Guinea, all of the awesome raw fish dishes from Tahiti… this is only the start!
Being more food/ingredient aware – what are the benefits?
The Pacific is the Garden of Eden. The inherent generosity of nature there is unmatched - food is everywhere, natural, nutritious. Staying on the natural path and valuing what the creator has given is key to health and well-being in the Pacific.
What's your next big project?
I’m working on the Pacific Island Food Revolution, which uses the power of reality TV, radio, and social media to change people’s eating behaviour. I am also working on cookbooks for Fiji and Vanuatu.
Can you share a recipe with us?
Check out our cassava coconut cake!