Episode 90: Robert Oliver – My Umukuka Rules


All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

A chef, TV presenter, author, and consultant, Robert Oliver’s weapon is food. But his journey has been far from linear, and has seen him experience the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. He’s hit rock bottom and taken out the prize for Best Cookbook in the World. Throughout it all, he's stayed true to his passion, to re-educate people on the importance of food cultures and their role in indigenous history.



He’s the embodiment of an altruist, caring deeply about people, and working unselfishly to do so. It’s a rare trait to come by in a self-centered world, and one that says no matter what hurdles Robert Oliver faces, quitting will never be an option.

Cultural food systems

The bulk of Oliver’s work comes from a desire to achieve a betterment of life through cultural food systems. So why exactly are these systems more important now than ever?

Oliver says it’s down to the “avalanche of food available that’s not great for us.” “People are aware of it, but there’s a whiplash effect where people are looking at diets rather than ways of living. If we go back to basics, before the commodification of food, you’re looking at food cultures at that point,” he says.

Behind the Scenes

Oliver believes reality food television deserves a lot more credit than it receives. As a tasting panelist on My Kitchen Rules New Zealand, he's inspired by how the show impacts people. New Zealanders are getting back to the table and excited about cooking again.

A reformed reality TV snob, Oliver says he understands where the stigma against such shows comes from, but believes the contestants deserve far more credit than they receive. “They’ve done something amazingly and withstood the pressures of television. The excellence people have in their minds is astounding.”

“While on the tasting panel, I began to observe the way cooking shows interface with the public. The power of television and the power of that format, where the contestants are ‘just like us,’ is incredibly relatable,” he says.

And it’s not just the mainstream shows having an impact. Despite not reaching huge numbers, the smaller shows are still reaching "great" audiences.

It was during his time hosting one of these smaller shows, Marae Kai Masters, that Oliver says he really noticed the varying cultural uses these shows have.

“On MKR if someone gets eliminated they get upset and everyone else looks relieved. The whole public’s engaged in it. But on Maori cuisine cooking show Marae Kai Masters, when a team was eliminated everyone else looked upset because they didn’t want them to leave. In the more indigenous show the sense of community was really embedded. That’s when the penny dropped for me. Because my work is largely within indigenous cuisine cultures, that’s when I realized these shows can be done in this space too,” he says.

Where it all began

Oliver’s passion for indigenous food and cultural food systems were born out of a childhood spent across Fiji and New Zealand. He grew up crediting the local cuisine and it's no surprise that this is the path he’s since found himself on.

“I think I was food-wired there [Fiji]. We have a very strong relationship with what we eat when we’re young because it’s couched in the ‘maternal figures looking after everything’ environment that our childhoods are, so the emotional link to the food we eat when we’re young is very strong,” he says.

Despite this strong presence indigenous food had in his upbringing, it took many years before Oliver realized the food he grew up around wasn’t the norm. It took experiencing other country’s local cuisines to lead him back to his roots.

“After years of working in New York I really wanted to reconnect with what I had growing up in the Pacific. The absence of our own food in these restaurants made me realize what a hidden treasure it is,” he says.

And so the journey began.

Reconnecting with culture through food

Oliver says it’s the approach people take to food that really defines how connected they are to their local food systems. “The food systems that aren’t polluted by processed foods have a strong relationship to local supply. The dish is an expression of the crops that grow there and everything begins in the soil, therefore, local cuisine requires local agriculture,“ he says.

During a job putting restaurants into resorts in the Caribbean, Oliver realized that local food wasn’t being purchased. From there he set out to establish why.

He found that holiday destinations such as the Caribbean were more susceptible to the diluting of indigenous cuisine. Oliver says these restaurants cater to the rest of the world’s comfort zone for the simple reason that tourists are often afraid, or at the very least apprehensive, about the unknown.

“If people don’t know about the food they aren’t going to go there, so menus serve as a creative glue joining tourism to agriculture. There’s a lot of arrogance in tourism. A bit of arrogance and racism. I would cringe at some of the inappropriate behavior of white tourists towards local people and I didn’t want to be confused with them. That’s driven quite a bit of my work. I wanted to make some kind of correction,” he says.

This arrogance isn’t helped by cultural stereotypes, either, which Oliver describes as “harmful” and “destructive.” “There’s a perception that pacific food is fatty meat and taro, when the reality is completely at odds.”

Rough seas

“I’ve had great success, but it’s been underpinned by massive failures,” Oliver says of the time in his life that ultimately grew the community he so desired – as well as his award winning cookbook, Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavors of the South Pacific.

“My life in the Pacific had been so rich, and I wanted to create a document that reflected that.” But it wasn't all palm trees and coconuts. Shortly after hitting the road to write the book, the Global Financial Crisis hit. Oliver was left with next to nothing.

“I’d had a relatively safe life in the US. I’d bought some real estate and managed my personal life reasonably modestly. I had all my money tied up in real estate in Miami when I left, and I lost it all. I lost everything, it was shocking,” he says of the sudden collapse.

“I had a very small advance from the publisher and had to travel through six countries. I don’t know how I did it. I just kind of cobbled it together, and by the day the book was released, I think I had $20 or $30 in my bank account. I had this great thing going on and it looked incredible, but I was a wreck. I felt that I’d failed. I felt that I’d utterly fucked up.”

It was the knowledge the project was so much bigger than himself that kept the wheels turning.

“The experts, the women of a generation before the fast food movement, had come around the project and felt the value of it, so I couldn’t leave them.”

So he started again. Rebuilding from the ground up and going even deeper into addressing the problems with cultural food systems.

The power of women

It’s impossible to discuss any part of Oliver’s journey without him going back to the strong women who he credits his work to.

“My journey has always been about strong, amazing, Pacific women, so I’ve never felt shy about being Palangi. In doing a Pacific cookbook, I was honoring them, I was honoring my own background, and hopefully I opened the door for many other Pacific foodies to put books on the bookshelf.”

And he's adamant he isn't trying to be "the big chef in the space." Not for one second. Oliver is there to make the space, and watch others thrive.

He says the women he’s learned from don’t need anything, but carry a shared concern for younger generations growing up in an environment lacking any cultural identity. “With such a proliferation of processed foods, people are in a bit of a panic about having a whole generation without an emotional connection to those traditional dishes. There’s a bullshit invasion happening and we’ve got to be a little bit vigilant,” Oliver says of the problems at hand.

It’s the marketing of these foods towards children Oliver finds especially concerning. “The companies understand that if you get them young you’ve got them for life. I find it very unethical. How can you want to make kids ill to make money?”

The solve

There's no denying the problems being faced by our fast food world are complex and varied. But, like all great change-makers, Oliver remains optimistic. “The solution isn’t terrifying. It’s joyful and truly awesome stuff. If we put local cuisine systems at the top of our mind, it will take care of itself.”

“I’m not daunted because in the indigenous food system we have a better story to tell, and people feel it,” a statement in itself that could inspire the masses.

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