Chefs for Development in Vanuatu Post-Covid: from Farm, to Fresh Market, to Table

Photo: H.Aru

Most of the restaurants in Port Vila are owned by certain nationals, and their menus are pretty much uniform across the board. All except for a group, self-styled as the “Port Vila Local Market Restaurants”, housed under the upgraded main market Downtown. Thanks to the joint funding support from the Australian government, the UN Women Fiji Multi Country Office and the Port Vila Municipal Council for such a great initiative. Covid-19 added a blessing in disguise by releasing our very own experienced and well-trained local chefs.

Chefs at the Port Vila Market and NWA on Tanna

Port Vila was once referred to in a Air Vanuatu inflight magazine as the ‘Cullinary Hub of the Pacific’. Despite Covid and the demise of our international tourism industry, to a large extent it still is now. But Covid-19 has done something else, something very interesting, and something great. It has released some of the very best of our local chefs out on the open market platform to cook for us – the ordinary citizens. Fresh garden vegetables from the open market a few steps away, fresh fish and other meat products. Yes, its all happening at the Port Vila Local Market Restaurants. Above all, it is fa more affordable, healthier, and extremely refreshing. What else can you ask for? Perfect setting, perfect location, perfect timing.

If you’ve not dined out at the Port Vila market restaurants lately, give it a try – locals and expatriates alike. You will not regret it. When tourism was almost booming pre-Covid, these very experienced and fantastic local chefs were serving in our hotels and resorts. Because the latter two are now mostly closed (other than for repatriates’ quarantine purposses), a lot of these chefs are now free to stake their claim for their very own space and to plate those same beautiful dishes in the cullinary section of the Port Vila Market for half (or even less) the prices known in the past. But the past is gone. There’s more to it.

Some of the chefs who were displaced from our tourist establishments have moved to the islands as well, including Tanna. So they’ll also be styling up dishes for our delegates attending the NWA starting next Monday morning right in the heart of Blackman Town. That’s also why NWA 2021 will be different.

Vivid memories of a bad, past experience

One early morning (during VFIPA’s early days), two workers from a certain restaurant (with a TV in it to attract customers) rushed to the office to report a concern and to lodge a complaint. It was a rainy day. The restaurant owner had been somewhere and on return needed to wash his dirty/muddy feet. To the workers’ shock and disbelief the guy poured water into the rice cooking pot and started washing his feet in it. When he was done he rinsed the pot then poured rice into it to cook for customers. The workers’ eyes nearly popped out of their heads; they couldn’t believe what they just witnessed. On hearing the news, I called the guy to my office and had a ‘friendly’ chat with him about this: “One more similar incident, your restaurant is closed!” He nearly went down on his knees to beg for mercy. From what we’ve heard lately, quality control and hygiene still remain ongoing issues in many of these restaurants. But they know that times have changed. This is great for health and for local tourism.

Fast forward 20 years on

Flip the page from the early 2000s and fast-forward 20 years to March 2020, you arrive at post Covid-19 disaster page. The story changes. Cuisine in Port Vila has dramatically shifted, for the better, giving effect to a big component of the original and authentic concept of Agritourism – Chefs for Development (Chefs4Dev), upholding the concept of ‘From Farm, to Fresh Market, to Table’. Viewed culturally, let the Vanuatu Kaljoral Centre (VKS) continue what it does best – Slow Food – such as through the national Lantarr Slow Food Festival which just ended on Vanua Lava in Torba this week. But we need to do more and to improve in a number of areas. I dwell briefly below again on the concept of Chefs4Dec intrduced in Vanuatu in late 2015 and heavily into 2016/2017.

Chefs for Development & Agritourism

Chefs4Dev ‘is an initiative which aims to promote stronger linkages between value chain actors in the culinary and agriculture sectors, with a view to enhancing the contribution made by healthier, locally sourced food and agrifood products to menus in food establishments across the Caribbean, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It is a collective initiative coordinated in the past by several local and international agencies such as CTA, IICA, PIPSO, SPC, SPTO, IFAD, Farmers’ Organisations, Agribusiness and chefs.

Today we have foreign ‘experts’ who are here under ‘special category’ visas who are not just providing TA work but other interesting services as well. That’s why we need to do and promote Agritourism OUR way, not theirs. Agritourism is broader than than just the fad of gastronomy that has lately been heavily promoted by celebrity Chef R.Oliver. Furthermore, Agritourism is broader and far more inclusive beyond the boundaries of membership to any so-called ‘Association’. Why an Association, and to promote and defend whose particular interests when agritourism as our national leaders had adopted it back in 2016/2017 was very inclusive and without the restrictive walls and borders imposed by an Association? Enough said on this saga, we’ll conclude on a few thoughts to support the Port Vila Market Restaurants.

Port Vila Market Restaurants – Moving Forward

Over lunch on Wednesday this week I chatted with one of the chefs who has served international clients both locally and abroad for many years. He raised two important points for consideration by authorities concerned. One, the all-important issue of Hygiene, and two, Training. On hygiene, his view is that these restaurants need to be better partitioned and assigned their proper space as restaurants are supposed to be rather than leaving the place too open for the public to walk through at will. More tables also need to be provided to support the increasing number of daily customers during peak lunch periods. On training, special training needs to be provided in various areas: food security, food handling, standards, hygiene, and so forth.

Last but not the least, the fantastic services and menus these restaurants offer need to be promoted in the news, on TV, in the papers, on social media and other mass media outlets more proactively for our local consumers. In a way, this artice does a bit of that. Bon weekend and to those departing for the 2nd NWA, safe travels.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.

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