Extract from Eat Pacific by Robert Oliver


It began with a simple realisation. Over the course of a generation, there had been a fundamental shift in the way Pacific people ate. Processed foods and sugary drinks had displaced the beautiful market foods that I ate growing up in Fiji. You can see how this has happened just by switching on the TV: the screen is blaring with jingly, jangly ads promoting instant this and tasty that, so-called ‘foods’ that have no real nutrition. Reading the ingredients lists of these non-foods is like perusing a chemistry experiment. This is not nourishment. This is not food.

I remember seeing a TV ad for a multi-(artificially)-coloured ice cream that had a young boy gleefully saying how healthy it was because of the colours. Which is categorically not true. And these products are being promoted as more than just food — it’s a whole way of life. If you eat this, you too will have perfect teeth, a perfect life, the modern and cool look of the people in the ad. You too will be part of a modern Western world. But that isn’t what’s happened.

Instead, across the region, diabetes rates have skyrocketed, obesity has ballooned and Pacific people now have the highest rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the world. As of 2021, Fijians are averaging three diabetes-related amputations a day; and Pacific Island countries have the most obese people in the world. A staggering 75 per cent of all Pacific deaths are attributed to NCDs. It turns out that West is not best after all. In other words, all of that marketing is a lie — what we eat is killing us. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

The key to good health still sits right in the Pacific backyard — in its farms, its gardens, its fabulous markets, and in the rustic dishes that Pacific grandmothers cook. The answer lies in local cuisine.

So how do we move local cuisine back to that top position in people’s lives and in people’s minds? How do we energise local food culture to combat the diabetes epidemic in the Pacific? How do we make something that’s perhaps viewed as only traditional into something sexy for young people today?

The impetus came when I was cast in one of those mega-global cooking-competition reality shows, My Kitchen Rules (MKR). Many of you will have seen it. I hadn’t. In fact, I had a rather dim view of reality TV. To me, it was tasteless, emotionally farcical and . . . well, trashy! But I signed on — I respected the producer and loved my co-judges, who were all friends. And when the show screened . . . man, I really had to eat my hat. This was not trashy TV at all. It had everyone tuned in, cooking at home, talking about food. I was visiting Fiji and Sāmoa a lot at this time and noticed that Australian and New Zealand Masterchef and MKR were prime-time favourites in the Pacific.

Could this be a solution for the Pacific health crisis? Could this turn the spotlight on the Pacific’s own food culture and create the kind of food movement that would lift the region back to good health? How about making one of these shows for the Pacific, with Pacific contestants, judges, humour and stories? And — most of all — showcasing the incredible multi-dimensional and delicious cuisines of the many Pacific Islands?

What I most loved about this idea was that out of something quite dire — the NCD crisis — we could create a brazen celebration of the Pacific. And so Pacific Island Food Revolution was born. But it didn’t happen overnight.


The first concept document I wrote up, dating back to 2013, hasn’t really changed since then. The idea was always to create a local food movement anchored in a reality TV series. After a long period of finessing the concept, we were fortunate enough to pique the interest of both the Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand governments. Both nations were keen to try something new: the NCD numbers had been steadily growing despite best efforts by many agencies.

Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are our natural partners; we share the Pacific Ocean and they have significant Pasifika populations. I quickly learned that both nations are genuinely committed to the wellbeing of Pacific people. We decided to develop the project in Fiji, Sāmoa, Vanuatu and the Kingdom of Tonga. It felt right to me. I have deep, long-held relationships in each country and I knew I would have the support of the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions.

Now I needed some heavy-hitters to make this great! I had worked with television producer Cindi Lucas on MKR and on a beautiful show on Māori TV in Aotearoa called Marae Kai Masters. Reality TV is a specialised skill, and Cindi is known as the best. Plus, she had lived in Fiji as a child so had old connections there. There really was no one better to produce the television series.

I also needed some stars to work with me as co-hosts in each country. Votausi Mackenzie-Reur in Vanuatu was a natural. We have been friends for years and she is the reigning queen of Ni-Van cuisine. I was only halfway through describing the idea to Votausi when she interrupted me, saying, ‘You don’t have to tell me anything more, Robert. I’m with you.’

In Fiji, I approached Dr Jone Hawea. We had worked together before and aligned over the wider concept that local food is the best. Dr Jone is also terrifically telegenic, dazzlingly handsome; a natural star. And he speaks brilliantly to the spiritual nature of food.

In Sāmoa, I approached Dora Rossi, another old friend. Dora, I knew, would bring not only the Samoan vibe but also the food perspective that sits within her soul. Dora is half-Samoan and half-Italian. If we could make Pacific Island cuisine as famous as Italian cuisine is, we’d be on the right track.

That left the Kingdom of Tonga. My friend Joanna Bourke invited me to speak at an event in the Kingdom where my old friend Her Royal Highness Princess Salote Mafile‘o Pilolevu was the guest of honour. I told her about my idea, and she asked me, ‘How do we bring this to Tonga?’ I replied, tongue-in-cheek and thinking I had a real nerve, ‘If you would agree to be my co-host, I’m sure we’d find a way.’ She gave me a look, one that I have come to know very well, and said, ‘You’re on!’

We were lucky to have the effervescent and cheeky Fololeni Curr step in for Her Royal Highness in the finals of season 1. I had never worked with Flo before but, wow — did she bring sparkle to the show! She’s quick with the one-liners, has a wicked sense of humour and had us in stitches. She was so good in season 1 that we asked her to host the Tongan episodes for season 2.

All of these people’s perspectives make Pacific Island Food Revolution what it is. Votausi captured it well when she said, at an event in Port Vila, ‘This is a Pacific solution for a Pacific problem. We don’t need anything from outside to help us. We have the crops and the traditional knowledge to guide us. You see, through food, NCDs are not just government business. Through food, NCDs are everyone’s business. And you know what — we can do this!’

It wasn’t just about creating a TV show. And we didn’t want a traditional development approach — we wanted a revolution. To make the message top-of-mind for everyone, we needed a communications strategy that took the messages from the TV series and showed them to everybody, everywhere. From social media to news stories to YouTube recipes to radio shows to our website and back to TV. You see, this wasn’t just about food — this was to be an emotional appeal to the hearts and minds of Pacific people to remind them that their food is the best. Over the course of Pacific Island Food Revolution’s short but noisy life, three terrific communications experts have made this happen: Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna‘i, Wame Valentine and Michelle Tevita-Singh. All have dropped their magic into the movement and we are all the better for them. I felt that with this view, and with these people, we could indeed create a food movement in the Pacific and, most importantly, make something that people would want to be a part of.

Three years into the revolution, the television series plays in every Pacific nation with an estimated 5 million viewers a week (from a total population of 12 million). When we did our surveys, we found that 42 per cent of those surveyed have made a positive change in their diet. It’s working!


A lot of credit is due to the fabulous contestants you have come to know and love. From Vanuatu, we thank, from season 1, Leonid Vusilai and Knox Taleo (the ‘Island Boys’), Ashi and Florian Carcasses, and Lucyana Tarosa and Maeva Williams; from season 2, Basil Leodoro and Annette Garae, Primrose Siri and Anita Frank, and Patrick Tari and Silas Kalman; and from season 3, Jane Kanas and Alistair Arthur.

From Sāmoa, from season 1 our thanks go to chef John Tu‘ulama and Asia Stanley, Jerey Young and Antonio Chadwick, Amazing Tavita and Tina Prasad, and Jerry and Charlotte Brunt; from season 2, Tino Aukisitino Suifaatau and Teuila Aukusitino, and Nunuiasolelei Vaifale and Tiose Lologa Siofele; and from season 3, Nina Va‘a and Iqbal Mohommed.

We thank the teams from Fiji: from season 1, Rakesh and Pritisha Chand, Rachel Beryl Temo and Timoci Waqaniburatu, and Manasa Bolawaqatabu and Shamim Ali; from season 2, Sera Smith and Milly Hoyt, Krystelle Lavaki and Pio Fihaki, and Sumit Kumar and Avinesh Chand; from season 3, Rachel Beryl Temo and Akuila Naiova.

The Kingdom of Tonga was well represented in season 1 by Joshua Saviete and Nox Pulu, Hina Fe‘ao and Piuela Taufa, and Sela Latailakepa and Taufa Halateu; from season 2, Francis Hikila and Tupou Mapumeihengalu Fifita, Lopeti Filo and Caroline Manu, and Tuiohu Mafi and Mia Asi; and from season 3, Randall Otto Blake Kamea and Ricky Vollmer.

We have been blessed with some terrific special guests. We thank the Honourable Fiamē Naomi Mata‘afa, Prime Minister of Sāmoa, for her words and wisdom in an episode about food and climate change. We thank our other Samoan guests: farmer and informal comedian Mikaele Maiava, Adi Maimalaga Tafuna‘i, Cindy of Sāmoa. From Vanuatu we say tank yu tumas to Myriam Malao, Grace Simeon and Wendy Isack from the Mama’s Association in the Port Vila market. From Fiji, many thanks to Apisalome Tudreu, from the Methodist Church of Fiji, and the brilliant Fijian baker Bertrand Jang. We also had a special appearance by the president of Fiji, the Honourable Wiliame Katonivere, who wowed everyone. In the Kingdom of Tonga we are grateful to Amelia Afuha‘amango Tuipulotu and from Papua New Guinea we were stoked to have Jennifer Baing represent ‘The Land of the Unexpected’. We even had an Olympian — Tongan superstar Pita Taufatofua appeared in an episode in season 1. The TV series also plays in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, all through Southeast Asia, and the United Kingdom. This is important, as during the Covid-related pause in tourism our future tourists were learning about the local foods of the Pacific and will hopefully come asking for them. Local food on tourism menus provides a vital economic supply link to local farmers and hence leaves valuable dollars in-country and in the hands of local people.

Local cuisine requires local agriculture. Local food is not just about diet or about NCDs. From a development perspective, local food also has a vital role across a range of sectors. In a changing climate, a choice for local food is a choice for the planet. There are no industrial emissions and few food miles when you chose local, and you’re supporting local agriculture, which is good for the climate. In food security, growing and eating local bolsters local food systems and creates food independence.

Think about biodiversity. Local cuisine requires the full food basket, including those special crops that make cuisine unique. Local cuisine, then, is the vessel for a biodiverse food system. For example, there are over 400 taro varieties in the Pacific — some used for food, some for medicine, some for ceremony. If some of these taro crops are lost, culture is lost too. As Suliana Siwatibau once said to me, ‘You don’t just lose the crop — you lose knowledge.’

But food is not just about health and climate change; it is not just about food security and biodiversity. Food is what our mothers make us; it is what binds — even creates — communities. The story of the food is the story of the people. It is through food that culture is defined. Remember: we live in paradise! The Pacific is the Garden of Eden. The creator has been extravagantly generous to the Pacific. We have the purest oceans, an abundant natural world; in fact, we have been given all we need to live healthy, harmonious lives. I call this the divine design. So a choice for local food is not as simple as choosing what to eat. It is a divine act, a divine choice. Through this food, our food, we celebrate the spiritual majesty of nature.


What’s next for us? Pacific Island Food Revolution was only ever meant to be the beginning of a Pacific-wide food movement. We are thrilled to see more local eateries popping up in the Pacific. Suva and Apia are literally jumping with them! In Vanuatu, a food tourism model is being developed, led by Votausi Mackenzie-Reur with chef Leo Vusilai, winner of season 1, at her side. We are working with The Asia Foundation on localised food movements such as Sanma Food Revolution, also in Vanuatu, and we’d love to foster more of these across the region to help address food matters at a very local level.

At its heart, Pacific Island Food Revolution is a food justice movement, helping to revive what is already there. As Dr Jone Hawea says, ‘We all know that our local cuisines are the most delicious and nutritious, so Pacific Island Food Revolution is about the restoration of Pacific food culture for the modern era.’

So this is a story of hope, of fun, of resilience, of sovereignty, of delicious food. Her Royal Highness said it best: ‘We’re all in this together, and we can get through this together. The revolution begins at home!’