Robert Oliver Q&A

Islands Business: Bula Robert and welcome back to Fiji. You just arrived last night. What’s the first thing you want to eat when you come back?

Robert Oliver: Well actually I dropped my bags and went straight up to Sangeeta [Maharaj’s] restaurant Eden. I don’t even look at the menu, they know what to serve me. I love the way that the Fijian cuisine system and the Indian food system has intersected here. Often those fusions are self-conscious or unnatural or forced, but it just seems to work beautifully here. I’m sure it took time. 

That, and Tukini are my favourite restaurants in Fiji. It’s just remarkable, it’s really food that tells a story. Sashi Kiran’s conserving food culture and dishes, she’s making people remember things. These are not just recipes and not just a plate of food, there are all these links to biodiversity and nostalgia and wellness in the larger sense. 

My view with cuisine,and people get caught up in the word cuisine because it’s so Frenchy, but it’s really just a cultural system of food and applies to any culture and all cuisines are based on food from nature, not food from factories and they just unlock so much once you raise them.

I was in Paris last week and there is a big renaissance of ‘cuisine maison’ which is grandma’s food. I know it’s a reaction to the fact that people don’t want commodities, they want real connectivity and its not just what we eat, it goes way beyond that.

So a lot of my work in the beginning was around the tourism links. We had a really clear mission around tourism when we began the first book and what we hadn’t countered on was the emotional reaction to the book. We hadn’t realised by putting everyone in the book, we were facilitating this massive storytelling event, and that was the gold for me. And then when we won the Gourmand award it went absolutely nuts and so in a way this project came about because the tourism thing was the first kind of output and intention but everything else got revealed when it was going along, and the big one that was revealed very quickly was the relationship between local food and health. 

Pacific Island Food Revolution is definitely pointing in that direction, it’s for that but I think it is going to bring more than that to fruition. The conference I was at in Paris last week was around climate change and biodiversity and the cuisine opportunity in that is that the food system is like an ecosystem that is a reflection of the ecosystem of the natural world. In many ways food is our primary transaction with nature and so I was just aware, because I have been in a lot of UN conversations,  that everyone has the agendas of health and ecotourism and biodiversity but to action them in a way that is super cool and fun and relevant to everybody and not policy or just leaders, that the opportunity is just massive because it brings the whole culture with it, it brings kindness and community and this whole transaction that happens when people give you their food that  doesn’t happen when people give you a cup of noodles.

So that’s what I’m interested in in terms of not just, I don’t like the word development, because it’s often used in an arrogant way by one group of people to another, because the cuisine doesn’t need development, the cuisine is absolutely awesome, it just needs to be packaged and revealed. I am interested in that whole arc of connections that happens.

IB: What sort of other things do you think Pacific Food Revolution will surface, beyond biodiversity and climate change.

Oliver: Biodiversity is a concept, the Pacific Community [SPC] understands it and UNDP understands it but do people understand it?  There was a story in a UN report about biodiversity and concerns about mass extinction and the report was positioned to say it was related to climate change but you can’t separate them actually ..and the title of the article was “how reduced biodiversity may take us away from some of the foods that we love” and I thought, we can actually flip that around, we could actually say ‘an increased hunger for the foods we love could increase biodiversity’ and that is kind of the path we are trying to make here. It’s not just us by the way, I was in Paris meeting guys from the Arctic Circle having the same want and desire and they are looking at what we’re doing and they’re saying, we want an arctic food revolution, I’m like sure, yeah we can figure that out.

So it’s very cool, I like that this innovation is coming out of the Pacific first.

IB: You started with tourism and I know you’ve talked about how a menu can be the business plan of a nation. What impact have you seen from that work that you did?

Oliver: I haven’ really followed up on it. There’s definitely more local food [in restaurants] occurring all through the region but can I attribute that to me, no I can’t, I’ve never done the research, I just do the work and move on. But I should imagine some of it is, I just don’t know.

One thing may open a door that everyone can walk through or else everyone just comes to this realisation at the same time. I remember when I was in Fiji as a kid, everyone saying ‘we’ve got to join agriculture tourism’ and that was 40 years ago so it’s not new, but I don’t know, I think it has taken this long, for me it has, for the understanding in organisations of the cuisine opportunity, it’s only now. I’m so grateful to the Australian and NZ government for supporting us because they get it, they get the cultural opportunity and the innovation. 

The usual way with this kind of thing is education, awareness, campaign and they’re all great, but it needs something to appeal to the will of people, because most people know what to do. There’s definitately an awareness of what’s good and bad but it’s just not happening.

IB: In your research, what did you find were the key things preventing people from eating well?

Oliver: What is cited as the reasons people eat junk food is convenience and cost. People are busy, and it’s really urban and peri-urban populations. The rural sector tends to do better because they’re still eating quite simply. And convenience and cost are both very real issues. We can’t overcome them with our efforts, there’s got to be other organisations that wrap themselves around what we do to help address that. But the word convenience is a bit tough because the cup of soup noodles is almost a benchmark for convenience and cost. They’re super cheap, they’re super easy but fundamentally, if you live on them you die. It just comes down to that and so I don’t know that there is going to be any particular food solution that meets that cost and convenience but you have to understand the real cost and one of the challenges of what we do is how do you say that without scaring people and putting people off, because a lot of the messaging has been around that because it’s true but it’s not appetising.

The reason we are doing the television program is because I was a judge on My Kitchen Rules for a few years and I was such a snob when I got the role- I said you know I do cultural work- and then I saw what happened on that show, just the community they mobilise is massive and I thought, oh we can use that for this. I began this project in 2015, you know the overnight success, five years later we’re finally rolling out. Everything is like that for me, all my work is like that. I looked at the creative documents that we wrote in 2014 and they are pretty much the same as what we are doing.

IB: Can you talk us through the television program?

Oliver: So we have four countries, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa and in each country we do two episodes. We begin with three teams in each country and throughout the episodes there is one team left and in reality tv, the episodes are called challenges, because the contestants are challenged to cook for 100 rugby players in 20 minutes on $5 or whatever it is, so we’ve made our challenges to address particular issues. So there is one in Fiji called greens because Fiji has these insanely high rates of aenemia but you walk into Suva market and there are greens everywhere. So that’s an example. In Samoa there is one called ‘colour of the rainbow’ which is around putting many colours on your plate, because colours indicate nutrients and we had the fafafine community because they’ve done work with the Ministry of Health in Samoa to help socialise that awareness. And in Tonga there was one around Royal food, the royal food concept because there was a tradition of royal food that was high status, so we created that to basically ‘reversion’ what does royal food means and give Tongan food the same status that royal food implies and my co-host in Tonga was her Royal Highness so she really helped with that.

IB: And it all culminates in finals episodes?

Yes once we identified which team in each country wins, they all come here and we built a huge, almost Masterchef studio, it’s a gorgeous set. Then the episodes are themed around regional issues, there’s one we did around UNICEF themed the first 1000 days which is around what children eat, and what babies eat, and this sort of stuff never makes it to cooking shows but it does in ours because we have a reason for being.

Oliver: The TV program is one thing but you’ve also got other work that is happening around it, there’s the Pacific Food Warriors.

We’re reiterating some of our amazing content through other formats, and its mainly social media but the food warriors are a function of our website and a community function. People can sign up and they can get media training around how to photograph and document food that they want to show off so it’s creating something social. And the website itself is quite complex.

IB: And the hope would be that you continue to access that funding for this work?

Oliver: Yes, because behaviour change takes up to eight years. We’re looking to change behaviours. So there is a whole behaviour economics side to this that we’re mindful of and our monitoring and evaluation partners are experts in behavioural economics. This project was seed-funded which is fully funded for two and a half years, and I’m sure these governments will continue if they see results. We’ve been quite realistic about what those results are, we’re not looking to have a dent in the health numbers for the first couple of years, its just “have we got people engaged and have we developed something that people want to be a part of”, it’s that kind of thing, but also, I’m already pitching. Everyone wants visibility and everyone wants their agendas and intentions to be activated at a grassroots level and this is the opportunity. We’ve had a great relationship with UNICEF and if we can replicate that, I’ll be really happy. It just takes those one or two people who really get it and it happens.

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