10 Questions with Robert Oliver, editor of Eat Pacific


Q1: In a nutshell, what is Pacific Island Food Revolution all about?

Pacific Island Food Revolution uses the power of reality TV, radio and social media to revive local Pacific cuisine. It uses a soft ‘edu-tainment’ approach by showcasing the beauty of Pacific cuisine, as created by Pacific people. Founded in 2018 and supported by the governments of Australia and New Zealand, Pacific Island Food Revolution has amassed an impressive following in the Pacific, operating in Fiji, Sāmoa, Vanuatu and Tonga with plans to grow into Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and other nations as requested.

Pacific Island Food Revolution’s cornerstone product is a Masterchef-style cooking competition where teams in Fiji, Sāmoa, Vanuatu and the Kingdom of Tonga slug it out to be crowned the Pacific’s best. It carries the message of healthy eating into the home via the same medium as the advertisements for all those sweet and salty packaged goods: the telly.

It follows the same format as other reality TV cooking shows, with contestants facing heats before a winner is crowned. The cooking challenges are based on issues the region faces. Creating healthy baby food might not sound like a glamorous culinary art, but it is critical in countries like Vanuatu, where one in three babies is stunted by poor nutrition in the first five years of their life. We are thrilled that 42 per cent of those watching the show said they had changed the way they eat. Beyond the numbers, Pacific Island Food Revolution has caught the attention of the whole Pacific, from prime ministers to everyday people. It has created a groundswell of pride in the Pacific. Guests in the show have included the prime minster of Sāmoa, the president of Fiji and HRH Princess Salote Pilolevu, the Princess Royal of Tonga.

Q2: Revolution is a powerful world. Are things that urgent?

Yes. The health numbers are dire. The Pacific has the world’s worst obesity and non-communicable diseases (NDC) rates.

Food is central to Pacific life. Most activities in communities revolve around food. Each Pacific country has its treasured dishes and each cuisine — the cultural system of food — has its distinct flavours and dishes. Vanuatu is different to Fiji is different to Sāmoa is different to Tonga, and so on. There are profound emotional connections to what we call ‘local food’. These dishes anchor communities in their culture and have ceremonial and medicinal use. In other words, they are culture. Globalisation and the long history of colonisation in the Pacific, along with the tsunami of processed foods, have uprooted the Pacific region’s traditional diets.

In Fiji there are three diabetes amputations a day and a full 77 per cent of Pacific deaths are associated with NCDs, largely due to the change in diet. The top 10 most obese nations on the planet are all in the Pacific. This is new. Over the course of a generation, processed food has displaced the traditional diet to dreadful effect. But the key to good health is in the Pacific backyard — in farms and markets, and in the rustic dishes Pacific grandmothers cook. The answer lies in local cuisine.

Q3: There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on with your project and it has attracted a lot of governmental and NGO organisational support. The TV series is sort of the shop window. What was its role?

The TV is what gets people engaged and excited. Reality TV draws a huge public following here, largely because of the contestants. People relate to them: ‘He looks like me’; ‘That’s my cousin’. This is very powerful. It has created a positive social attitude towards local food.

Because of that, other activities can flourish. With UNICEF we created Pacific Kids Food Revolution, a YouTube series that shows on TV. We are now planning for phase two of this in Tonga and Kiribati. In Vanuatu, we work with Regenerative Vanua as the food and media arm to develop food tourism for rural communities who have been largely left out of the ‘big hotel’ tourism model. In Vanuatu also, two of our contestants from season two created a grassroots community food revolution project called Sanma Food Revolution. This is going gangbusters and now Fiji wants one.

In Tonga we are developing a Tongan Chefs’ Food Revolution with Princess Pilolevu and Tonga Tourism. Tonga wants to put Tongan food on the menu in its hotels so that food imports drop and the revenue stays in Tonga. We are also working with the University of the South Pacific to develop a student-led food revolution. From a systems perspective, food intersects with many development sectors and government ministries. But none of the Pacific nations has a Ministry of Food and yet everybody eats every day.

Q4: How did the home audiences react to it?

Huge viewership in the Pacific. The Busara Center for Behavioural Economics found that 85 per cent of those surveyed in Tonga were engaging with Pacific Island Food Revolution, 84 per cent in Sāmoa, 63 per cent in Fiji and 49 per cent in Vanuatu. Overwhelmingly positive!

Q5: Did you have any trouble attracting contestants?

No! No worries at all. For season two especially. People had seen season one and were keen to come on board. Our teams were plugged into the mission of the show and the wider revolution, which made us all very close and keen to make things work.

Q6: So many delicious recipes in this book! Do you have a favourite?

Ahhhh . . . many! I like that most of the dishes will be easily replicated in Pacific homes. That’s the point of this.

Q7: And is there one that sounded unlikely but was just a revelation?

In season three, Rachel Temo and Akuila Naiova — Team Fiji — really blew us away time after time.

Q8: You talk about most Pacific cuisines having ‘the coconut advantage’. What did this humble and ubiquitous fruit deliver?

Often when people move from a meat diet to a vegan diet, they miss the ‘fullness’ that meat, fish or dairy provides. Coconut provides that same satisfaction. It’s a great region in which to be vegan in and I think the truly Pacific diet — with all the forms of coconut, all the greens, seaweeds, complex carbs, tropical fruit — may end up being a model that rivals the Mediterranean diet.

Q9: Apart from the coconut, what in your view is the next most fabulous ingredient?

I think the many seaweeds are extraordinary. They carry that bright, marine flavour that only a pure ocean can bring.

Q10: This book encourages Pacific people to be proud of their local produce and their cuisine. Is this book a celebration of that?

Hell yes! And it comes from the hands of many of the brilliant cooks who are found in every Pacific nation.