Susan Kuro­sawa meets an Aus­tralian chef who’s redefin­ing Fi­jian cui­sine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

SHANE Wat­son looks hap­pily weary and ad­mits it has been an enor­mous chal­lenge to get the culi­nary side of things or­gan­ised at Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort, Fiji’s new­est lux­ury is­land bolt­hole. The one-time MyRes­tau­ran­tRules re­al­ity television con­tender, for­mer ex­ec­u­tive chef at Sea Tem­ple Palm Cove in north Queens­land and, most re­cently, the Sof­i­tel Queen­stown in New Zealand’s South Is­land, has un­der­gone not so much a sea change as a trop­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. In true troppo fash­ion, this has in­volved com­ing to grips with Fiji’s airy re­gard for sched­ules. But con­struc­tion de­lays in the open­ing of the 46-room re­sort (in­clud­ing Fiji’s first over­wa­ter bures) and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the un­ex­pected mil­i­tary coup in De­cem­ber last year have had a sil­ver lin­ing for Wat­son. He has had un­ex­pected time on his hands to ex­plore the lo­cal culi­nary land­scape and source pre­mium pro­duce and re­li­able sup­pli­ers.

Fiji has never re­ally de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a food des­ti­na­tion, but Wat­son could be the man to change that. His style of cui­sine — which, with no re­gard for fancy tags, he sim­ply calls ‘‘ clean’’ — is light, low in fat and dairy, and of­ten Asian in its spici­ness and ex­e­cu­tion. He has been in­spired by work­ing with Neil Perry at Syd­ney’s Rock­pool and is striv­ing for dishes that suit the cli­mate and no-hurry lifestyle of the sul­try South Pa­cific. He is not a fan of ‘‘ sec­ondary sauces’’ and likes to elim­i­nate fats, aside from those oc­cur­ring nat­u­rally in meat. ‘‘ I rely on pan juices; I try to get rid of the starch,’’ he says.

Liku­liku La­goon has one restau­rant, Fi­jiana, with in­door seat­ing and al­fresco ter­race din­ing, and Wat­son’s menus change daily. Dishes are de­lib­er­ately small, en­cour­ag­ing ex­cur­sions across the menu: no one blinks if din­ers opt for mul­ti­ple en­trees or two main cour­ses at lunch or din­ner.

Lunch al­ways starts with an amuse bouche, usu­ally a cooler, in yin and yang flavours such as rasp­berry and bush lemon, served in a shot glass. Main course could be a choice of seared coral trout with green pea puree, crisp proscuitto and bal­samic, or chilli-spiked fried noo­dles or grilled fil­let steak sand­wich with ba­con, brie, rocket and onion mar­malade.

Wat­son is gen­uinely amazed at the qual­ity and variety of the pro­duce he has dis­cov­ered; his manic food-find­ing ex­pe­di­tions around and over the main Fiji is­land of Viti Levu have be­come the stuff of awe among his kitchen staff. ‘‘ Get­ting the fresh sea­sonal pro­duce you re­ally want is any chef’s eter­nal night­mare,’’ he says.

But he’s de­lighted to have made con­nec­tions with sup­pli­ers of free-range eggs and or­ganic fruit and veg­eta­bles, and the pork pur­veyor Vuda Pig­gery, near Lau­toka. Wat­son re­cently dis­cov­ered Spices of Fiji, an or­ganic plan­ta­tion at Wainadoi, half­way be­tween Suva and Pa­cific Har­bour on Viti Levu. ‘‘ It’s an oa­sis of vanilla, cin­na­mon, nut­meg and pep­per . . . I’ve never smelled any­thing like it. We or­der and they blend; I never imag­ined I would find a fresh vanilla bean in Fiji.’’

Wat­son has also forged a pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship with Nadi Bay Herbs, a small op­er­a­tion near Nadi air­port that sup­plies him with mus­tard cress and va­ri­eties of basil. ‘‘ The leaves are the size of din­ner plates,’’ he says. He adds that Nadi Bay Herbs is the largest provider of basil to NZ: ‘‘ The Ki­wis don’t re­alise that most of their pesto has started life in Fiji.’’ Wat­son also says: ‘‘ Nadi Bay Herbs only grows what the lo­cals won’t eat be­cause theirs is a hunter-gath­erer tra­di­tion and they will just take the crops.’’

Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort, on Mololo Is­land in the Ma­manuca group west of Nadi, is sur­rounded by a marine sanc­tu­ary, but fish is pro­vided fresh from neigh­bour­ing wa­ters, in­clud­ing ut­terly de­li­cious coral trout. Mud crabs, on which Wat­son rou­tinely per­forms an Asian makeover with chilli and soy, are read­ily avail­able at Lau­toka Mar­ket, near Nadi, while ‘‘ meaty and tex­tured’’ scampi and prawns come from a fresh­wa­ter farm on the Navua River in the cen­tre of Viti Levu.

His for­ays have meant op­por­tu­ni­ties to sam­ple lo­cal dishes, too. ‘‘ I’ve even taken to cas­sava,’’ he says, ad­mit­ting how sur­prised he is by his en­thu­si­as­tic re­gard for this starchy veg­etable, a sta­ple of Fi­jian cook­ing. He’s got a taste for kokoda, too. This lo­cal del­i­cacy — raw fish (usu­ally mahi-mahi) mar­i­nated in lime juice with co­conut cream, chopped red onion and chilli — is sim­i­lar to Tahiti’s pois­son cru. ‘‘ It’s a sexy lit­tle dish,’’ Wat­son tells me. ‘‘ I just have to step back and ad­mire the way the Fi­jians orches­trate it.’’

Wat­son also loves the way Fi­jians eat in fam­ily groups, of­ten with their hands. He fea­tures a mag­iti (Fi­jian for feast) ban­quet on Sun­day evenings, served ‘‘ share style’’ with small dishes de­signed to be passed around the ta­ble. On Tues­days, there’s an Aus­tralian twist at South Pa­cific bar­be­cue night. This tal­ented young chef is tap­ping into the In­dian and Chi­nese cul­tural her­itage of too.

There are amaz­ing In­dian restau­rants in Nadi Town,’’ he says. ‘‘ I love the In­dian snack food, es­pe­cially bara, a deep-fried frit­ter spiced with car­damom and cumin and smoth­ered with chilli.’’

Mean­while, back at Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort, gen­eral man­ager Steve An­stey says al­most ev­ery guest is start­ing the day with Wat­son’s bircher muesli from the con­ti­nen­tal buf­fet and DIY juice from a plat­ter of fruit and veg­eta­bles, ready to be blended. Even those who claim they never eat break­fast seem to be hooked by what’s swiftly be­come the re­sort’s sig­na­ture morn­ing dish: a per­fect omelette filled with mud crab, chilli and wild rocket, and served with a hot pa­paya rel­ish.

As the day pro­gresses, per­haps soy-steamed chicken for lunch, served with jas­mine rice, ginger and shal­lot oil? And the dessert stand­out? A del­i­cate carpac­cio of pineap­ple served with kaf­fir lime ice cream. Culi­nary ad­ven­tures in par­adise in­deed.

www.liku­liku­la­ Susan Kuro­sawa’s re­view of Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort ( June 23-24): www.theaus­

Gone troppo: Shane Wat­son in the kitchen at Liku­liku, main pic­ture; crab on the menu, top right; chef Su­liano Naulo, bot­tom right

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