But a pronounced focus, as evidenced on the menu, was an emphasis on Chef Tutor Phillip Nordt’s application of a “Fresh, Local, and Seasonal” philosophy on food.
It’s the Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute’s (CITTI) students who are cooking the food though, so how is that knowledge and wisdom being transferred to this next generation of chefs?
Weeks before opening the restaurant’s doors, Nordt took his class of 12 students – who are completing the City and Guilds diploma programme in food preparation and culinary arts – on a field trip.
The class visited a local butcher, where they developed and designed an “island style” sausage, made with local pork and without additives or preservatives.
“The students learned what normally goes into sausages and these additives are not really needed, and how good a pure product can taste when it’s created with excellent produce and skill,” says Nordt.
A growing movement around the world is pushing towards local food, which takes into account economic, health and environmental factors.
Here in the Cook Islands, the Ministry of Agriculture is undertaking a programme with the assistance of the United Nations to boost local food production. With farmers doing their part, the tutor believes his students can also play a role in furthering the go-local movement.
“It is the young generation in the hospitality industry which can bring about change, and even though change is slow, it is happening and awareness is being created,” says Nordt.
The sausage recipe made it on to this year’s menu, so with that said, on to the food.
For my latest visit to Kai Reka, I begun my $30 three-course meal with an entree featuring locally-caught octopus sliced thin horizontally, served with a salsa featuring pawpaw and roasted garlic and drizzles of avocado oil and balsamic vinegar.
It was a different preparation of a favourite and, I thought, I can easily eat more of this wonderful sea creature - in addition to the octopus and taro I occasionally buy from one of my favourite mamas at the Punanga Nui market.
Looking across the table at my dining partner, she was taking her time with a plate of fried tempura local vegetables, accompanied with a soy sauce and wasabi dipping sauce, and fresh bundle of herbs. Again all local, but with such great local produce available, this one was a safe choice and sure to please.
In developing the nation’s hospitality industry, the CITTI also offers a food and beverage service certificate, and their contribution to the seamless operation of Kai Reka cannot go unmentioned.
I was told that the restaurant served nearly five times the amount of diners compared to last year, and there was no difference in the level of service.
After some friendly chatter with our server, it was time for the next round. Ironically – in the context of this report - my choice of main dish was the sole selection that didn’t feature a local centrepiece.
On the centre of the plate was a piece of char-grilled prime ribeye, cooked rare, but to make up its local shortcomings, the kitchen surrounded it with sautéed pinapi and taro dumplings. Finished with coconut cream and a sauce that my immature palate fails to describe, it was dynamite.
But as much as I was enjoying it, I couldn’t wait to have my turn with my partner’s main – that local ‘totiti’.
Kai Reka’s house-made sausage was served on top of a generous scoop of mashed kumara, with sautéed shallots and rukau. Completing the dish was a rich, tamarind-based sauce.
This was comfort food at its finest with a refined twist, reminding me that a nice hearty meal can be the perfect antidote to the type of chilly weather we’ve been dealing with here in Raro.
Desserts came in the form of a “Kai Reka Trifle” – a standard favourite loaded with the island’s abundant seasonal fruits – and something called “Valrhona Manjari chocolate crème brulee, moccha sablee, coconut ice cream”.
Crème brulee – self explanatory! Explanation for the rest comes courtesy of Google.
As local has been the theme for the bulk of this piece, if there has to be an exception to the rule, it might as well be the chocolate used in this knockout closer.
Manufactured in a small French town near the city of Lyon, Valrhona is described as a “bean-to-bar” producer of fine chocolate which uses “... cocoa originating from plantations in Central/South America and Africa, distilled rum from the Caribbean, as well as natural vanilla.”
Until cocoa beans are grown and shipped in from the Pa Enua, my personal opinion is that this is a satisfactory substitute for a local product.
Served with a piece of pastry called a ‘sablee’ and coconut ice cream, the dessert is a guaranteed winner for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Reflecting on the meal and its ingredients, it’s hard to see past the benefits of a diet dominated by locally sourced products.
As a number of commentators have pointed out though, a food economy dominated with local choices is not a “be all and all”, and could be a distraction from solving global food issues by driving up food prices.
But the positives – boosting local economies, reducing the use of fossil fuels, emphasising healthy eating – are hard to ignore.
Nordt says he lectures his students about the benefits of a healthy diet that incorporates fresh, local products. He says he teaches his students to “start at home, serve less food and healthier food, to be health conscious when designing a menu, and to try to persuade customers with great flavours and beautiful presentations” for healthier eating.
“He’s taught us to use the stuff that we look at like rubbish here,” says student Marie Williams. “The stuff in eis? You can actually eat that.”
“You gotta explore ... get out of your comfort zone,” she says.