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America's top chef gives thumbs up to new cuisine

Lance Seeto
Sunday, July 24, 2011

You've probably never heard of him, but in the U.S. his name is as American as Apple Pie, Mcdonalds and Coca Cola.

He is the godfather of modern American cuisine, and one of the most celebrated chefs' and restaurateurs' in recent history. But in Fiji, he is only known as Charlie, and that's the way he likes it and one of the reasons why his family come back to our tropical islands.

With award-winning restaurants across the country, master Chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer is considered to be at the top of the culinary world and has received critical acclaim for his signature Progressive American Cuisine. In 2010, the American Academy of Chefs inducted him into its "Celebrated Chef" Hall of Fame and earlier this year, his flagship Aureole restaurant in New York was listed in the Michelin Guide for its fifth year in a row.

With a reputation for showcasing and promoting the freshest regional produce, I was keen to see what Chef Palmer thought about Castaway Island's pioneering Fijian cuisine.

So what did he think? A big thumbs up for the fresh flavours and emphasis on local produce, influenced by Fijian culture and tropical infusions.

Inspired by Palmers fine dining food, the local chefs were privileged to cook a special banquet for his birthday celebration on the island recently.

Using the tender Peking duck from Reddy's Farm, Fijian rock lobster, Navua river prawns, Nadi Bay herbs, spices from Wainadoi and the unique organic vegetables from local farmers, Castaway's chefs presented a degustation of modern Fijian cuisine for Chef Palmer and his guests.

Each of the chefs had to come out to the table and explain to the diners what local ingredient they used, how they prepared the dish and why they decided on the flavour combinations.

This was a nerve racking experience for all of the chefs, as many of them are not used to public speaking, let alone having to explain how they cooked their food to someone that many American chefs regard as the "God of the kitchen".

With a menu of grilled lobster medallions, nama sea grapes and bush ferns served with a passionfruit and Galliano sauce, this was followed by an Asian roasted Peking duck fillet wrapped in star anise-pickled ginger, hoisin and a roti pancake.

And with his heart racing and sweaty palms, Chef Denis Chandra nervously presented his Thai-spiced prawn, dhaniya and sesame balls with a red lolo curry sauce, and a rare Beef Tataki rolled in hot Indian spices and served with cucumber raita and fresh-made tamarind relish.

Chandra explained to the guests that he combined his knowledge of Indian cooking with produce and Asian techniques he did not know until his advanced culinary training on the island. As he walked away from his presentation he told Chef Palmer that he hoped his food would give him a spicy "kick" - and it did!

Luckily his spicy dishes were followed by a palate cleanser of Hibiscus and Jose Cuervo Tequila granita, just in time to cool him down. But the biggest challenge was Chef Palmer's request for a banana birthday cake.

Castaway's chefs have been trained to learn that dessert is the pièce de résistance, or final and best of part of the meal, so the pastry chefs were keen to not let their colleagues down and designed a themed-cake that best represented both Fiji and America.

Using Tom Hank's "Cast Away" movie as inspiration, because it was symbolic of the island, they turned the banana cake into a Fijian bili bili raft with a replica "Wilson" volleyball from the film. The banana cake was filled with caramelised vudi and covered in a white chocolate and cream cheese frosting, with the "volleyball" made from banana sponge wrapped in white icing. Absolutely to die for, and a perfect ten out of ten from America's top chef.

Although this is Palmer's fourth visit to Fiji from his hometown of New York, this is the first time he has seen Fijian cuisine progress in a similar way to his own passion and creative cooking spirit, by infusing the local produce and culture with classic and modern cooking techniques.

Influenced by his childhood experiences working in his family's vegetable garden, Palmer was an early advocate of fresh farm produce over manufactured processed foods. His flagship Aureole restaurant in New York, first opened in 1988 with an emphasis on using regional American ingredients.

His flair for both cooking and business helped Palmer to build a culinary and hospitality empire with 13 top restaurants and cafes across the country and a growing collection of wine shops and award-winning boutique hotels bearing the Charlie Palmer name across their entrance.

But even whilst on holidays in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles away from home, this busy Chef can't resist to step into the kitchen and create something fresh with the local ingredients.

"Without a doubt, people eat with their eye long before they put fork to food, so I continue to look for a playful yet respectful way to create excitement on the plate." says Palmer.

After catching a magnificent blue trevally on a deep-sea charter in the Mamanuca Islands, Chef Palmer and his two sons were invited to get their hands dirty in the busy kitchen of Castaway and cook with our local chefs. Creating a simple grilled fish with a buerre blanc reduction (a butter sauce) with fresh herbs, the kitchen chefs were in awe of this chef's techniques and knowledge of classic French cuisine, and were busily writing notes and taking photos of his work.

His two young sons, who also work in his restaurants at home, enjoyed cooking with their father in a foreign kitchen during a busy and frenzied lunch service. Once the fish creation was complete, Palmer left the chefs a sample of his cooking and said that he hoped they would enjoyed his cooking and was keen to hear their opinion. Well - no sooner had he left the kitchen, the staff pounced on the leftovers and it was all gone within 30 seconds!

With advanced culinary training, access to fresh organic produce and exposure to top international chefs, Palmer sees no reason why the local chefs could not turn Fiji into a world renowned culinary destination..

So inspired by the passion in our local chefs, Chef Palmer is sending back a copy of one of his cookbooks for each of the Chefs - personally signed and autographed - to show his appreciation for giving him a taste of what Fiji can achieve in showcasing its organic produce.

Lance Seeto is the Executive Chef at Castaway Island and honorary mata-ni-vanua for the Tui Lawa of the Mamanuca Islands.

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