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Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, February 10, 2013

Last weekend's Fashion Designers Alliance of Fiji's Crystal Ball dinner was a huge success in more ways than one.

Not only did it help to raise much needed funds to assist young fashion designers, it was an opportunity for some of Fiji's up and coming young chefs to show that their local food could be showcased in ways never seen before in Suva.

Food and fashion together represent a country's culture, and despite being as old as the world, food must remain as modern and up to date as fashion.

This was the key reason why I offered to help the FDAF as many of its designers and students are producing world-class fashion that is gracing the catwalks of many overseas shows.

The chance to create a menu of Fijian cuisine that complimented the exciting creations of Fiji's top designers would test and challenge my team of local chefs.

With over 200 guests and 35 volunteers, these types of large events in Fiji are usually buffets of deep fried finger foods, curries, chop suey, vakalolo and lots of starchy carbohydrates.

Instead, some of Fiji's elite fashion designers including Robert Kennedy, Ellen Whippy, Naziah Ali and their guests were served a menu of handmade canapés, followed by a plated main course of fish and chicken, finished with a specially designed dessert called Diamond and Pearls.

Without any deep fried food in sight, the entire menu was a healthy example of what can be achieved with 100% Fijian produce.

Despite one guest asking for more salt (they probably haven't seen the Health Ministry's TV ads), the menu was a successful combination of steaming, flame grilling and wok cooking techniques.

When I first volunteered my chefs and I to help out, I did not quite know what I was getting myself into. With Castaway Island closed for post-cyclone renovations, we had some spare time to donate to such a worthwhile charity event but what we did not realise was that Suva's Civic Centre had no kitchen!

With no cooking equipment, refrigeration or preparation space, my volunteering efforts would soon turn into a major catering production. Cooking for that many people in a commercial kitchen is a big enough headache, but to do it with no kitchen was going to test all my expertise.

With generous support from the Fiji National University's catering college at Nasese and Master Peni Naisau, the FNU kitchens and some of their students helped provide us with enough space to prepare the food.

Fiji Gas kindly offered portable gas bottles and my favourite high-pressure burners to create our portable kitchen, and with donations from Crest Chicken, Fiji Fish, Golden Ocean Seafood and Victoria Wines, we now had nearly everything we needed to create this special dinner.

Exotic herbs are not widely available in Suva, so it was off to Pure Fiji to meet with founder Gaetane Austin and to kerekere her for some of her prized organic herbs from their garden.

With lemongrass, lemon basil, Thai basil, sweet basil, rosemary, mint and parsley flourishing in Pure Fiji's soapstone garden, it was also the first time the chefs had seen such a wide variety of herbs growing in the wild.

Smelling and tasting the aromatic leaves, Gaetane shared some of her home cooking ideas with the chefs. "What are you planning to do with my herbs?" she asked.

Pastry chef Yogesh Prasad told her he wanted to use the rosemary and lemon basil in his dessert, and the lemongrass was for the BBQ chicken main course.

"Very imaginative, I would never have thought to use them in that way".

Next stop was the Suva municipal markets and fish market to find the vegetables and seafood.

Part of the experience for the young chefs was learning to shop wisely with a limited budget for so many people.

Senior chef Arun Kumar quickly learned that the recent cyclone had caused local fruit and vegetables prices to skyrocket.

With local tomatoes at around $18 per kilo, he reluctantly paid the vendor the equivalent of nearly a day's wages. Prices will gradually stabilise over the coming months, but luckily green vegetables like jackfruit, Chinese cabbage, moca and bele are still reasonably priced for the family.

Visiting the Saturday fish markets was the highlight for the chefs. With more variety than most of markets, they were amazed to find sea prawns, vasua and sici clams, giant freshwater kai and baby river shrimps.

Chefs Arun and Salimone Ralulu decided these would be ideal for their seafood kokoda and the fresh seawater they brought all the way from Castaway Island to create the Wai Tom starter. The traditional seawater dressing can only be eaten with clean and clear ocean water, and unfortunately for Suva, much of the local seawater near the harbour is too polluted for cooking.

With everything in hand, it was two days of preparation at the FNU kitchens in the hot Suva weather.

With humidity high, we knew it was only a matter of time before the rain was on its way. It was fingers crossed that it would hold out until after the dinner - it didn't. With pouring rain under a leaky marquee, the chefs were challenged with water everywhere, limited equipment and the pressure of serving 200 plates at the same time. But with the assistance of the volunteers, food was cooked and served quickly to the delight of the guests.

Food and fashion are two of Fiji's newest and most creative forefronts that are showing the world that there is much more to this country than its friendly people.

With talented young Fijians who are determined to showcase the unique mix of culture, they are leading a renaissance in art, design and cuisine that is beginning to excite Fiji and the rest of the world. By nurturing and promoting this talent, events like the Crystal Ball will give rise to a new era of creativity where food and fashion is representative of a new, modern Fiji. These are certainly exciting times.

* Lance Seeto is an Executive Chef, author and writer based on Castaway Island Fiji. Follow his adventures on his Facebook page Fijian Food Safari.

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