Posted on 17/05/2017
If there is anywhere that is managing to serve world-class food in Fiji it is VOMO
Resort ensures its fare is not just a footnote to a visit to Fiji, writes Lauren Quaintance.
By Lauren Quaintance – This story first appeared in New Zealand Herald HERE.
There are a lot of reasons to love Fiji but, until recently, the food was not one of them.
Too often a visit to a resort in the Pacific archipelago meant enduring fried food, wilting vegetables and death-by-buffet. What was most puzzling was that so often you’d be eating this on an idyllic island with lush vegetation, just metres from clear water with a kaleidoscope of fish.
South African Mark Leslie, a Michelin-starred chef who cooked for Elton John and Bill Clinton while working with Nelson Mandela, says, when he moved to Fiji to take up the role of general manager at the New Zealand-owned Vomo Island in the Mamanucas in 2013, the Fijian resort food scene “was like a time warp – it reminded me of Africa in the 1970s”.
Having previously managed luxury resorts in Kenya, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Seychelles, Leslie knows well some of the challenges of producing truly great food in an island nation with a subsistence farming culture where the majority of fresh food has to be imported.
If there is anywhere that is managing to serve world-class food in Fiji it is Vomo. At the 32-room resort on an 87ha private island, the owners spent $1 million revamping the kitchen in 2015 (and adding an open-air show kitchen producing healthy grilled food, including Japanese and Indian) only to have to rebuild both after Cyclone Winston ripped through the island months later. Both kitchens were rebuilt before the resort’s reopening last September and Vomo refocused its efforts on ensuring their food is not merely a footnote to a visit to the island.
“Once the sun goes down, regardless of where you are, the view has gone and the ambience – and food and beverage – is all that really remains,” says Leslie, who thinks food is a much more important part of a traveller’s experience than many hoteliers appreciate. Vomo has lured international chefs with experience in restaurants – not just hotel kitchens – who can draw on Fijian influences (coconut, seagrass, local greens) as well as Pacific Rim flavours and styles. The current chef, Nic Samaras, who cooked at the (now closed) Paradise Bay Island Resort in the Whitsundays, works alongside chef de cuisine Thusan Iranga, who is from Sri Lanka and has worked in resorts in Asia, Bahrain and Seychelles.
Leslie says he looks for chefs with experience cooking in Southeast Asia because “that food works in this climate”, as well as chefs with Indian expertise who can cook curries, which are part of Indo-Fijian culture. Wherever possible the menu includes local mud crab and Fijian organic chocolate, but they import more than 80 per cent of the food served, including New Zealand speciality cheeses and Cape Grim Beef from Tasmania.
Expect dishes like fish of the day wrapped in banana leaf and served with ginger and sesame-tossed greens as well as tomato and coriander salsa or braised pork belly served with parsnip puree, pak choi, garlic kale and caramelised apple. It’s largely unfussy, produce-driven food that works in the setting. The wine list betrays the owners’ New Zealand roots with a strong showing from Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago and Nelson, alongside exceptional wines from Australia, Europe, and the Americas. Leslie is particularly proud of the resort’s relationship with French champagne house Billecart Salmon.
Even children are fed well here with a menu that strays just far enough from the usual resort fish-and-chips-and-spag-bol formula while still keeping kids interested. The weekly home-churned icecream bar – actually a sybaritic dessert buffet that has its own dedicated room just off the main restaurant – is a kids’ dream with every kind of topping from little squares of brownie to sugary jubes to nuts.
It’s not the pinnacle of Vomo’s culinary prowess but the dessert bar is in some ways a good example of the resort’s approach to food. It’s not that you couldn’t assemble the ingredients yourself – but you probably wouldn’t bother. “It should be like food you’d have at home but more luxurious,” says Leslie.