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Interview with Robert Oliver at the Pacific Community Agritourism Week

July 23, 2015

The Pacific Community Agritourism Week, which took place in Nadi, Fiji, from 29 June to 3 July, emphasised the importance of creating stronger links between the tourism and agriculture sectors. This is increasingly seen as a key requirement for achieving sustainable and inclusive growth in the small island states of the Pacific. At the heart of the week was a three-day Agribusiness Forum, which included representatives of farmers' organisations, research and development, policy makers and the private sector. It also featured a workshop led by New Zealand chef and author of Pacific recipe books Robert Oliver, along with other chefs from around the Pacific region. During the workshop, Oliver, CTA and partners from the region agreed to launch the Chefs for Development platform to share effective approaches for promoting local cuisine and produce.

Spore - How can Pacific cuisine play a key role in strengthening linkages between agriculture and sustainable tourism?

robert olivierRobert Oliver - I think that the development of local cuisine is key: local cuisine requires local food. A lot of our agricultural struggles come from trying to produce crops that don't naturally grow here. As a result, the farmers have to bring in chemicals to grow the crops and, as a result, the organic nature of the region gets lost.

Pacific cuisine has not been at the centre of tourism in the region, but there is plenty of potential here, as long as local cuisine is supported, made dynamic and its image is strengthened. There are amazing chefs who are doing amazing things, but they have been working pretty much in isolation. The chefs have access today to cook books and televisions shows; it is like a toolkit for them.

In fact, everyone is watching cooking shows now. There are food festivals; there is education from tourism institutes, although at the moment only a couple of these institutes have some form of Pacific cuisine education. All the young chefs have been taught the European format. The problem is, this is not encouraging them to give Pacific cuisine the dynamic quality which you find in Thai or French food, for example.

Another really important point is that, for many years, tourists coming into the Pacific countries were not familiar with local foods. There was no information; there was no regional food show out there. And as people in the Pacific are generally hospitable, they often responded by giving tourists what they had at home.

So there is a lot of work to do but there are also some very good assets. There's a really amazing organic movement here; organic farming looks after the environment and is the natural way of operating in the Pacific, although certification is important so it stays that way. What it produces, the output, is a luxury brand: organic cuisine. It is something that is hard to find in the countries where our tourists come from. So it gives us a double reason why we should be organic here and it helps to emphasise the notion of health, Pacific health.

There's an avalanche of processed food that is seriously affecting the lives and health of the people of the Pacific islands through non-communicable diseases. I know there are people who say they are convenient, but they are not convenient. When you are sick and your family is looking after you, and you live a short life or you have diabetes - that is not convenient. This is a whole story that has not been told, and we actually have a better story in our own cuisine.

That is why I do what I do with books, media and television; I want to create a change of heart and mind. And I think 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. Tourism and agriculture are economic drivers in the whole region and the fact that they are currently disconnected is a missed opportunity.

Spore - What needs to be done in order to strengthen the connection between the two sectors?

Robert Oliver - We need more education on the farmers' side, particularly so they understand the requirements of the market; we need to have a strategic plan. The farmers are smart and are masters of their art of farming: it's in their blood, in their fingertips. It is just about giving them the tools, in the same way as I've mentioned the need for chefs to have their tools.

When I worked on this in the Caribbean, I made a lot of mistakes. The farmers were not ready to supply local food to the hotels and the hoteliers wanted to buy from one or two people, not 50. So that is where there should be a mechanism, a kind of middleman, to manage the farming end.

For example, Women in Business in Samoa [WIBDI] a has a 'Farm to Table' programme involving 60 farmers supplying 22 restaurants with organic, high quality produce. They teach the farmers about cash flow and the importance of supplying the hotels and restaurants on time and they are managing all the health and safety regulations.

The logistical capacity is really important. It is more than just saying, "Here are the chefs and here are the farmers." There's a lot of commercial and practical work that needs to be in place in order to facilitate that connection. This is not going to happen overnight but Women in Business in Samoa has managed to make it happen after one year and a half. They are a great model.

Spore - So you think that chefs from the Pacific region have the potential to have an impact in that process of stimulating a change the mindset and taste of visitors?

Robert Oliver - Chefs from the Pacific region are very inventive and creative. They don't need anyone to hold their hands and tell them what to do. They just need some foundation pieces, some core dishes that define the culture, something that is state of the art that they can work from. The Pacific has many different traditional styles of cuisine. Cook books are important because they can capture these different cultures and then the chefs can use that. And it doesn't need to be an exact replication. With the help of cook books, chefs can adapt their traditional dishes and come up with innovative, new ones.

Spore - So we need more exposure for the Pacific islands' innovative local cuisine?

MeaKai BookRobert Oliver - That is why I do what I do. When I write a cook book, it is released into the Australian, New Zealand and international markets with a lot of publicity around it. Suddenly many people have an awareness; visitors are made aware that there is this Pacific cuisine in the island they are visiting. Development agencies have been slow to understand the power of television. It is not just entertainment; it is telling stories and informing people. That is why I do what I do - to create awareness. 

Written by Jean-Baptiste Calo for Spore Magazine issue No. 177.

Related resources

  • Follow the updates on Twitter with hashtag #PacAgriTo
  • Watch the Real Pasifik series on 'Food culture of the South Pacific'.