Robert Oliver: “Homelessness was bizarre to me!”

Words: Jamie Joseph

I recall a dinner I had with chef and author Robert Oliver a few days before he took to the stage at TEDxAuckland and presented his blueprint for food tourism culture.

We share prawn starters while I prod Robert for tales of his life in New York in the nineties. It was a staggering adjustment for someone that had spent his childhood in New Zealand up until the age 12, and the years that followed in the sunkissed communities of the South Pacific’s Fiji and Samoa.

“Homelessness was bizarre to me!” He says, reminiscing. “How can you have homeless people in New York City?”

I laugh, “Really?”

“Yes,” he tells me. “When I saw homeless people I didn’t understand they were homeless. I just thought they were hanging out. That’s how I started my first food programme. There were a bunch of guys on my corner where I lived and I figured out after a few weeks that these guys were actually homeless, and then I was like, Oh my god, I can’t believe they’re homeless!”

Back then Robert was 29, and not yet the globetrotter that he is present day. I first met Robert not long after his book “Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific” (which means “food” in Tongan) had won the Best Cookbook in the World Award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, much to the shock of the food world. The book was an effort to connect the Pacific’s agricultural and tourism sectors, showcasing local cultural and full flavour for both food and life. But it was also an elbow to tourism. There it was in technicolor demanding to be seen, raising the question, “Why are the restaurants so stuck on importing food and serving western cuisine when the feast is right here on their doorstep?”

But back in New York in the nineties Robert was still finding his stride working for a gourmet catering company.

“So I started taking leftover meals from the restaurant I was working at, and I’d drop these meals off with the guys on my corner,” Robert tells me as I sit opposite him, grinning with amusement and anticipation. “In a flash the corner grew from 5 people to 30 people, and I soon realised I needed to make this into something real.”

Fortunately he knew a lot of charitable folk he knew he could rely on. They organised a van and began picking up meals from an assortment of places and once a week they’d hit the subways, Central Park and all the hotspots they knew homeless people would be. They knew the locations because it was the homeless regulars leading the way.

By the time Thanksgiving came around it was up to a daunting 5000 meals. All this time Robert was still full time at his day job. They worked with a homeless organisation for Thanksgiving and opportunely they inherited the quickly developing programmes.

“Looking back on it now,” he adds with a faraway smile, “that experience working with homeless people in New York helped me with the project in the Caribbean – learning to manage different groups of people from diverse cultures. When I stumbled across the sustainable food model I realised I could turn this into my “job”.

More recently the island ambassador chef has been working on a South Pacific food and culture TV series, and a follow up book to Me’kai that comes out any day now.

Robert Oliver’s TED talk from TEDxAuckland is bursting with passionate pride. He explains how his experience creating an array of menus across Caribbean restaurants was a portal back home to the South Pacific, this time armed with a head full of ideas to strike a lightning bolt through the status quo.

The talk is a strong reminder that its not just a bite of food we’re tasting, it’s culture.

Jamie Joseph is a writer and an environmental activist. She will be returning to her African homeland in October to join the war on poaching. Follow her journey @ savingthewild.com – every voice counts.

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