Robert Oliver: Feeding the rich and the homeless

by Dale Husband
Sun 4 Jun 2017
10 min read
2
  • The Oliver family: Dennis, Jean, Robert, Richard and Shelley

Perhaps you already have the impression that Robert Oliver knows a bit about cooking. That thought may have come from spotting him on TV programmes like My Kitchen Rules and Marae Kai Masters.

Or dipping into Me'a Kai (2010) and Mea'ai Samoa (2013) — his two books which have both won awards as the best cookbooks in the world.

Then there's the possibility that you've sampled his cooking at a flash restaurant in, say, New York, Miami, Shanghai, Barbados or Auckland. And, yes, he has been getting around, hasn't he? 

Here he's chatting with Dale about his travels, his work and his special affection for Pacific kai which he first got to know as a boy in Suva.

 

Kia ora, Robert. Thank you for being part of e-Tangata. And, right at the outset, perhaps we should acknowledge the way your dad, Dennis Oliver, shaped your life. Because your career, so I understand, has had a more colourful trajectory than it might have had for a young Taranaki Pākehā.

Well, that’s mainly because we moved to Fiji when I was 11 or 12. My dad’s work took us there in 1971, and that was really the beginning of our relationship with the Pacific.

Dad was a social worker for the YMCA, and he went to set up a YMCA in Fiji — and later in Samoa. And those YMCAs didn’t follow the New Zealand model which people expected him to set up because they didn’t need camp and gym programmes in the islands.

Back then, “development” amounted mostly to well-intentioned people coming in from the outside and bringing models from overseas — which had the effect of perpetuating colonisation. And the message to the colonised was: “If you’re more like us, then you’re better off.”

That’s the way it worked in those days. But my father’s approach was completely different. His first six months were all meetings with chiefs and with community and church leaders. And there was profound community consultation until a plan emerged that was relevant to Fiji — and then later, after the same process, a plan for Samoa.

Those projects led to the most dynamic and forward thinking organisation that the Pacific had seen. They had a really big impact. And my dad was revered in the islands. He was given a matai title in Samoa, Tagaloa Fa’atautele, in recognition of his service to Samoa. In many ways that was the highlight of his life.

He passed away only recently — and we had a very Samoan funeral for him at the Samoan Methodist Church in Hastings, where he and my mum (Jean) had been going since they moved back to New Zealand in the early ‘80s.

And so we’ve been reflecting on the scope of his work. And my sister and I can see that we’re really walking in the path that he laid out for us. I believe the biggest gift anyone can give you is the way that they think. That’s what we inherited from my dad. He taught us the importance of “making a difference”.

I’m not quite used to him being gone yet. Because he was my mentor and I’ve been used to talking to him every day, I’m still occasionally reaching for the phone to ask: “What do I do?” But the voice now has to come from the inside rather than from outside.

Ngā mihi, Robert, as you come to terms with your loss. Your dad was a man who clearly left his mark in many ways.

That’s true. And that was partly because he kept finding practical solutions to a range of problems. For instance, there was a shortage of builders in Suva, so he helped set up a carpentry school. And he set up support programmes for the shoeshine boys living on the streets of Suva — because they had no village to go back to, and often, no support from their families. He also set up a network of farmers — 10,000 at one point — to supply the hotels with local food. And he did the same in Samoa.

Also, in Samoa, where they had a very high rate of youth suicide, he set up a programme that helped give the young people a voice. Their problems were often hidden away in the shadows of Samoan society — in a leadership-heavy culture, people can feel unimportant and invisible.

Then, after his work in the islands, Mum and Dad came back to New Zealand, to the Hawke’s Bay. That was when the freezing works at Te Mana were closing. So he was able to come up with training schemes for tangata whenua who were out of work.

He really was an influential and inspirational man. He touched the lives of thousands and thousands of people. I always called him my hero. Some people see me as being successful, although their measure can be awards and television presence. But my dad measured success by how well, and how meaningfully and joyfully, you contribute to your community. And how you do that as an act of love.

What a neat guy. He wrote books too, didn’t he?

There was one called Making a Difference which was full of anecdotes about cross-cultural development. He also wrote about the shoeshine-boy project and another book, in the 1980s, called Trickling Up, where he argued that it’s the people at the bottom who matter most. That line of thought was new to the government at the time.

Great. Now let’s turn to your arrival in Fiji as a boy, along with your mum and dad and your two younger siblings, Shelley and Richard. That must’ve been some experience.

What I arrived into was this exuberance of colour and just the beauty of being the outsider in a new culture. Maybe someone my age could’ve felt intimidated. But I think all of us just found it brilliant. We all came alive when we moved there — and straightaway connected to the humour and the warmth of the local people.

Because we weren’t tucked away in the diplomatic circles or living in an ex-pat enclave, we just took to the Fijian way. And, for me, it was the food that was the special attraction. When we arrived, almost none of the Pālagi ingredients that my mother was used to were available. So she had to learn how to cook from the market.

That experience no doubt was a big factor in you making a career of the chef business — and never being afraid of change. But I suppose, to some extent, we’ve all been living through a food revolution. When I was a kid, we were a meat and veg whānau — and now we’re into pinenuts and coriander and things we’d never heard of 30 or 40 years ago. But, for you, it wasn’t until you went to New York that you made your big culinary moves.

I went to New York out of fascination. If you grow up on an island, you just hanker to go and see what the world is like because you think everything from overseas is better. More glamorous. More fabulous.

I was always attracted to New York. I had friends there and I went there and stayed for many years. But I did quite a few different things. I was a chef in a couple of good restaurants and then I was executive chef at the largest catering company in New York for a long time.

You’ve got to be so on your game in New York City. It’s where all the brands and all the trends come from. So, you’re in that really dynamic and creative space the whole time. And it’s a competitive space too.

But there were a lot of homeless people there. And food isn’t just for rich people. It’s not just about creativity or celebrity chef stuff — it’s also about hunger and looking after people and sharing. So, almost without thinking, I started bringing food home for some homeless guys on the corner.

Actually, I didn’t even know they were homeless. I didn’t have that concept in my head. I just thought they were grungy people. Or some fashion thing. Then, when I started bringing home meals from the restaurant, there’d be more of them waiting on the corner.

So, I started a network of chefs in my neighbourhood. I was a chef in a restaurant in Soho then and I had a really cool boss, Natalie Azani, who loved and supported what I was doing. We developed a programme, got a truck and, through a charity I joined, I met Marisa Tomei the actress — who to this day is my closest friend.

She helped me with this as well. She was emerging then. This was before her Academy Award and that kind of stuff. And we set up a programme with 15 to 20 restaurants. And then their suppliers would give us stuff as well. So this became another full-time job because it involved the subway system where a lot of New York’s homeless people hung out.

But then it became way too big for me and we ended up passing the project over to a large organisation. It still goes on to this day. And I always attribute the impetus for that programme to my time in the Pacific where food is for everyone and there’s no way someone would go hungry if you have food. It’s just not the way it works.

I understand that you spent 17 years in New York — but not all your time in the US was in the Big Apple, was it?

Well, Marisa Tomei and I, in Miami, opened a restaurant called Suva. I’d been thinking about all the cuisines in the world being presented in restaurants in the United States, but there was nothing from the Pacific. Yet I could remember all of these amazing Pacific dishes. So we set up Suva on Miami Beach. And that created a big buzz.

Then I went down to the Caribbean and I noticed that all the food in the hotels was being imported from outside. But I’d been down the markets and had seen there was all this great local food and lots of farmers producing it.

It reminded me of what my father had done in Fiji. And I thought: “Wait a second. We can do something about this. Something very pragmatic.”

I’d seen that the menus in the resorts rarely reflected local cuisine because they were trying to look after all the tourists by giving them what they had at home.

The tourists were a bit scared of local food seeing that it wasn’t in the cookbooks or on the TV shows. So we worked on putting more local restaurants in each of the resorts — and we got the chefs thinking about what grandma made and how to turn that into a restaurant dish.

And, in the course of a three-year project in three massive resorts in Barbados, we set up farm-supplier links which meant millions of dollars of food money staying in their country.

That’s how the idea of the Me’a Kai cookbook came up. We realised that, if we packaged up Pacific cuisine, chefs and locals as well as tourists would be excited about it — and that it would be a profitable link to the local farmers. So that’s what Tracy Berno, my co-author, and I set about writing. And that’s what I came back home for.

Sadly, for many of us, when we thought of Pasifika food — and I know that this is a sweeping generalisation — it was all corned beef and lamb flaps. It’s disappointing that that was the perception because it dissuaded people from trying some other Pacific dishes.

Yes. Fundamentally, products and ingredients that had no origin in the Pacific were being used to define Pacific food and to me that’s just the worst. It happens with Māori too. There was a real suppression of local food knowledge and it wasn’t deemed “good enough”. That’s because of the crap that people from overseas had brought in for commercial reasons.

And that crap displaced the original diet, which was very profoundly good, natural and whole and medicinal. So, yes, there are those negative perceptions. But I think most Pacific people know better than that. I certainly knew better.

Congratulations on the book. It’s amazing isn’t it? You and Tracy penned a book that was Number 1 in the world. Step aside Jamie Oliver — here’s Robert Oliver. Now let’s talk about this telly cooking phenomenon, because, in recent years, you’ve become one of these celebrity chefs.

Actually, I don’t like being called a celebrity chef. Because I’m not one. I’m just part of a cultural conversation about food. And, as far as food TV goes, I didn’t want to be part of it to begin with — I was too scared to go on TV. But I’m thrilled about it now, because I think it’s got people cooking and engaged in thinking about what they eat.

Before then, everything had been going in a different direction. Towards eating processed food. So, while I thought those big cooking shows were often trashy, they really were fun and they got people watching and talking about food. So I’m grateful to them for that.

I recall that you did a show on Māori Television a couple of years ago called Marae Kai Masters.

Yes. And I enjoyed doing that show — and working with Te Kohe Tuhaka. I learned heaps from him when I was doing the show — just conversationally between takes. He’s got such a deep knowledge of Māori food.

That’s cool, but I have to admit that, at times, I felt slightly uncomfortable because we were pitching, against each other, well-meaning kaimahi from various marae who normally cook for the people and not for competition. That part of the show didn’t feel right for me.

Well, the fun part of those shows is that everyone wants to win. And, when a team is eliminated, there can be tears. But, with Marae Kai Masters, there was such goodwill among the teams that, when a team was eliminated, everyone was upset because they didn’t want them to leave. And that was a real indicator to me of how indigenous food and people are inseparable.

Lovely. Let’s talk about Kai Pasifika, the Auckland restaurant you recently opened.

Yes, we opened a few weeks ago. For many years, when I was working on the books and doing the TV shows, I was praying that the interest in Pacific cuisine here would lead to a big, focused Pacific restaurant.

I’d heard Pasifika people saying: “We need a place of our own.” So I spent about four years wanting to do it but being distracted by other projects. Feeling strongly that a Pacific restaurant should be a part of Auckland’s identity.

Then, finally, I was able to pull the right team together. Richard Hall, a world renowned restaurateur from South Auckland who I’d met in Shanghai and came back to New Zealand to work with me on this. And Kenina Court who’s Samoan and the deputy chair of the Pacific Business Trust.

And then Laila Harre, an old friend of mine from Fiji, who had a restaurant called Ika on Mt Eden Rd, told me: “You should do it here. I want to go back into academics.” So that’s what we’ve done. With Pasifika chefs, Pasifika dishes and a Pasifika spirit.

The other night we had a Pasifika women’s group — 20 of them. Before they ate, they got up to sing grace and the whole restaurant joined in. I just thought: Where else can you get that? It was such a special experience.

 

© e-Tangata, 2017

 

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