Robert Oliver: “Cooking local, stimulating business”

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Interview with Robert Oliver

Connecting agriculture and tourism using a ‘farm-to table’ approach is a key development tool for Pacific island states. Chef Robert Oliver believes where the cuisine goes, agriculture will follow.

Robert Oliver is a world renowned New Zealand chef and TV presenter. He is author of two award-winning Pacific cook books, which were written with a vision of connecting the Pacific’s agriculture and tourism sectors using a ‘farm-to table’ approach. By stimulating local economies, this approach to local cuisine and agricultural products could become a key development tool for island states.

What inspired you to become a chef and - in particular - develop such a passion for local cuisine?

I was born in New Zealand but was raised in the Pacific Islands where food is not just something to eat but a way of communicating and sharing. I have always loved food and being brought up in a culture that uses food as a way of sustaining communities and relationships really appeals to me. I realised early on that I had an aptitude for cooking so I worked really hard for years to develop my skills. My early career was in New York and I was fortunate enough to work for a woman, Mary Cleaver, who was a real pioneer in the movement for sourcing local food. Her catering company only worked with local farmers, often organic, and I quickly came to appreciate the values that are associated with sourcing local food, what it means for local people, economies and the environment. So when I went to the Caribbean to do a consultancy, I applied that systemic way of thinking to the work there and that is where I first really worked on the farm-to-table approach.

Moving from the US to the Caribbean, how was it to work in a completely different environment and address the challenges faced by these island states?

It was challenging but it felt more natural to me to be working in an island state environment. I was also fortunate to be supported by the executive director of a hotel resort group in Barbados and St Lucia who wanted to reduce their dependence on foreign imports and build up local supply. So I managed all the menus at three different resorts and I was given the time to develop relationships with local farmers. And it did take time, we made lots of mistakes, I had to prove the case all the time to both sides – the hotel and the farmers – and there was lots of learning in the process. It was a challenge: getting farmers to show up on time, adhere to all the health and safety regulations about how to manage pesticides and fertiliser applications, to build their trust. But the Ministry of Agriculture was a real supporter in the process, along with IICA – the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture - as what we were doing was part of their mandate, to support farmers and stimulate local agriculture and demand for their produce. And once the farmers trusted me and trusted the system, they started to do well and make money and then other farmers who were sceptical came on board. Seeing someone get a new tractor and seeing someone send their child to school or pay for hospital bills - it was all those little human successes that made the farm-to-table programme work.

So having achieved this success in the Caribbean, what lessons have you been able to take from the Caribbean to transfer to developing a farm-to-table approach in the Pacific?

There are a lot of things that are similar, the frameworks are similar although the cultures are different. But the first thing I did that was different was to develop a Pacific cookbook. Our intention was to show the diversity and help glamourise Pacific cuisine but we had no realisation of the impact it would have, of how much awareness it would raise. As the book gained more attention from winning an international cookbook award, Pacific people were able to recognise and appreciate their traditional cuisine and food culture. This is resulting in a huge change in mindset; the rest of the world may be embracing farmers markets and the ‘local is better’ mantra, but for too long the Pacific has remained stuck in its ‘overseas is better’ psyche.

Following on from this success, I began to speak at conferences and this is where CTA stepped in as we realised that cuisine could become a real development tool, linking agriculture and tourism. But up until then, there had been a gap in the development process, there was a lot of support for farmers but nothing for chefs. And this is how the ‘Chefs for Development’ initiative came about as I was meeting individual chefs in the Pacific and Caribbean who were realising the value of their role in promoting local cuisine and traditional culture. So in partnership with CTA, we realised that there was leadership that we could support, promote and grow; it is still in its infancy but we are developing a community that can share their knowledge and experiences and learn from each other. I see awesome chefs emerging whose cuisine identity is locally focused, and that also means working with local farmers. Also, part of what is exciting is that the Pacific and the Caribbean both romanticise about each other and there is this awesome recipe culture they can share because in the Pacific we have the same crops as in the Caribbean but we cook them in completely different ways. So I am not trying to make the Pacific have the same cuisine as the Caribbean but it is stimulating for chefs to have other ways of using local products, to innovate, and to have more tools in the toolkit is always helpful.

How can the media help play a greater role in supporting this initiative in promoting local cuisine and agritourism in the Pacific and elsewhere?

Media is a powerful development tool and the two that I most use are cookbooks and television. Chefs love cookbooks; cookbooks glamourise and package the cuisine for the chefs to then interpret and do their own spin on. Cookbooks also create a groundswell of pride; for many Pacific people, seeing their food - and often themselves - in our cookbooks was like seeing something they see every day, but for the very first time. So this in turn engenders the development of a ‘food community’. Books are also vital repositories of often-disappearing cuisine culture. Pacific Island traditional food culture is disappearing. As Tongan chef, Uinita Kaloni, said, “The traditional dishes we grew up with are drifting away. If we lose that, we are hopeless.”

Television is also hugely powerful. Not every home in the Pacific has a TV set but it is very much a communal activity and shows with local content are particularly popular. My show, REAL PASIFIK, has travelled across the Pacific creating local food chef ambassadors and this has resulted in terrific traction in the region, with many networks screening the whole series up to 30 times. The show’s success was due to its casting of local chefs in star roles. Also, Pacific Islanders enjoyed learning about the food from neighbouring islands. Many people commented on the pride they felt at seeing their own food culture being portrayed with such high value, and how the chefs were able to innovate and create with very familiar dishes that, up till now, had been considered to be too ‘typical’. To other viewers, the Pacific provides such an appealing food destination - it is 35% organic, has dynamic urban and rural markets, vibrant local cuisine and passionate chefs. But the show is as much about changing perceptions as changing diet or menus. Switching this thinking is the key to unlocking the health and economy of these region and destination cultural cookbooks and regional focused food TV and other dynamic digital content are how to do that.

Where next? What new challenges do you hope to embrace?

What has become very pressing for me is the issue of health in island states. ‘Food colonisation’ along with the landslide emergence of convenience foods has had a shocking impact on Pacific Island health. The South Pacific is in crisis; we have some of the most obese nations in the world but the answer is right there in our backyards: in our farms, villages, and markets and in the traditional dishes that Pacific grandmothers cook. It is this traditional cuisine knowledge based on complex carbohydrates, seafood, lots of green vegetables, all forms of coconut and tropical fruit, which provides the opportunity to combat the daunting diet-related health epidemic that is bringing the region to its knees. Local cuisine can put our people on the right side of a healthy future; it is the delicious answer to physical, economic and cultural health. But it’s important to realise that this does not just concern the chefs in the kitchen; when they start to source local food from local farmers, that’s a model for economic prosperity.