KAI VITI CHEF
It is a cold, winter afternoon in Auckland as I cross to the corner of Mt Eden and Symonds Street to arrive at Kai Pasifika, the country’s first ever Pacific Island restaurant and lifelong dream of celebrity chef Robert Oliver. The warmth exuded as the doors open is matched by a sunshine island smile on the face of Fiji born chef, Bertrand Jang. “Isa, it’s freezing outside. Come in quick, Belinda will fix you a drink,” he says with a hug. Instantly the bitter cold seems a distant memory and I feel as if I am back home in Fiji. A Dark and Stormy with an island twist of passionfruit in hand, I sit down with Jang to sate my curiosity about his journey from sell-out high school bake sales at Marist Brothers in Suva to the kitchen of one of Auckland’s most anticipated restaurants this year.
Growing up in Fiji
As I finish off a tasting platter of the Kai Pasifika menu, it comes as no surprise that Jang knew he wanted to be a chef when he was in primary school. At an age when most children still think superhero is a viable career choice, he was already experimenting with cakes in the kitchen. “I remember the first thing I ever made. I was only in class two and it was a cake that I saw on an episode of Sesame Street. I had no idea what I was doing so I threw all the ingredients into the pan and baked it without mixing,” he recalled. Growing up in a three bedroom house with seven brothers, he remembers his mother’s custard pies and his father’s chopsuey as childhood favourites in a household that revolved around love, food and a love for food. His
early years were shaped by the support of his parents, who put aside money to buy ingredients for him to learn and experiment with, despite competing demands on their earnings. There was a brightness in his eyes as Jang spoke of his parents and the way in which their relentless commitment to his dream is the reason for his success today. Their support combined with a strong work ethic guaranteed it wasn’t long until his signature tuna pasta salad with mango chutney was high in demand at every extended family function and his cakes were the talk of his friends’ circles at school. The same work ethic saw him graduating from the Fiji Institute of Technology’s culinary school at the age of 18.
Professional training and early years
With a saturated market of young chefs in Suva, Jang found himself in a position where opportunities in the culinary world were so slim that the most fortunate graduates were being hired as kitchen hands, without any chance of exposure to cooking. But determined to continue his chosen trajectory, Bertrand chased his dreams to Rarotonga where he started out as a sous chef. After four years of experience across a variety of cuisines, he was promoted to head chef at the resort. “There were a couple of people in those early years who really shaped me as a chef. Maitua Vano, a pastry chef was one of those people and someone I consider a mentor. Maitua taught me how to be patient with food, a skill that serves me well till this day. Through her, I learned to master the art of timing and adopt cleanliness in the kitchen as a virtue.”The second influence in those early years was a colleague, Arvind Kumar who Jang to join him in New Zealand after six years in Rarotonga. They worked together at Bay View Resort in Taupo and later at Pepper’s Blue Water at Lake Tekapo. This was his first taste of cooking in a purely commercial environment and the perfect platform for refining the skills he had developed as a resort chef. That both restaurants were situated within some of New Zealand’s most beautiful natural landscapes was a bonus.
After his years as a commercial chef, Bertrand decided to take some time to build his personal brand as a chef, one which he describes as simple Pacific flavours made with freshly sourced ingredients. “My personal food aesthetic is that we shouldn’t decide what to cook then go out and buy ingredients for the meal. Instead, we should let nature tell us the menu for the day. Visit the women at the market, visit the fishermen and they will tell you what you should be cooking with today.” This mindset saw him working as a culinary lecturer at Cornell on Hobson in Auckland and it was during this time that he worked alongside chef Robert Oliver at Flavours of Fiji fundraiser. The function was held at the famous Cloud venue in downtown Auckland in aid of those affected by Cyclone Winston in Fiji. Having roots in Fiji as well, Oliver and Jang connected instantly. But it wasn’t until the dream of Kai Pasifika was approaching reality that chef Oliver approach him to be a part of the venture. “The pitch really resonated with me. Robert spoke with a passion about bringing indigenous food to the plates of people here in Auckland and it fit right in with where I wanted to go as a chef. “Even though he is a famous, world-renowned chef who has won prestigious awards and accolades, he will still ask for our opinion on every dish he cooks. There is no ladder here at Kai Pasifika, no hierarchy and the paradox of the angry famous chef is completely dismantled. We all operate as a big happy family in the kitchen and everything that comes out of the kitchen is made with that love.” They say home is where the heart is and it difficult not to leave a piece of your heart at Kai Pasifika where Bertrand, Robert and his team have truly created a home which brings food lovers together with fresh ingredients and flavours that take you back to family feasts on the island.