THE challenge: to choose an unusual ingredient to be included as a MasterChef-style "invention test" for Outrigger on the Lagoon executive chef Shailesh Naidu as part of his lunchtime cooking class at the Fijian resort.
So we keep our options open as Shailesh, our tour guide for the morning, walks us through the fruit salad of colours and spring garden aromas that is the bustling Saturday morning Sigatoka produce markets on Fiji's Coral Coast.
In the end, we think freshly caught mud crab might trip him up.
But as always, the first and only Fijian-born, five-star, executive chef in the island nation and the most awarded chef in the country has it covered.
With a dash of his usual culinary magic and a good helping of kitchen charisma, he adds chilli mud crab to his cooking class repertoire of reef lobster ceviche, seared fresh sea snapper with kumala cake, palusami veges and tropical salsa, finishing with banana vakalolo.
Shailesh's recipes are a fusion of traditional Fijian and western cooking.
He admits to enjoying "freestyle" cooking where exact amounts of ingredients are unnecessary. And to my delight, each dish is worthy of 10 out of 10 in any
It's no wonder Shailesh has a few tricks up the sleeves of his white chef's jacket.
After 11 years at Denarau Island's Regent of Fiji (now Westin) and Sheraton resorts where he completed his apprenticeship, Shailesh joined Outrigger on the Lagoon Fiji in 2001 as sous chef and served under US and New Zealand masters until he was promoted to executive chef in June 2007.
In 2002, Shailesh won Outrigger's first gold medal in the National Salon Culinaire - the first of many accolades and awards including multiple wins as Fiji chef of the year, the 2005 Oceania chef of the year in Perth (the first gold medal win for any Fijian chef), and first prize while representing Australasia against 12 other chefs selected from 74 countries in the 2007 One World culinary competition in South Africa.
Shailesh's vast knowledge and selection of ingredients, commitment to first-class service at Fiji's first five-star resort and continual menu innovation have helped the signature Ivi Restaurant become Fiji's national restaurant of the year 2006 and maintain that level of excellence today.
Some Sunshine Coast foodies may remember Shailesh from January, 2009, when he visited as guest chef at The Ginger Factory's Ginger Flower and Food Festival in Yandina, where he conducted a cooking class and demonstrations showcasing Pacific cuisine.
These days, the Fiji Chefs Association president is slightly less "hands-on" in the kitchen, preferring to mentor and nurture young chefs not only in his own resort but also throughout the island nation.
Virtually all he needs - the freshest of fruits, veges and seafood including Sigatoka River mussels - are right on his doorstep at the produce market.
And in recent years, the array of produce has been boosted by Fiji's Ministry of Agriculture's bilateral ties with China.
Earlier in the day, we are introduced to the 18ha Tian Chinese Organic Farm where Tian Ruige is teaching Fijians how to adopt modern Chinese agricultural methods to maximise the land and grow quality fruit and vegetables that are suited to the climate and rich organic soils.
Traditional Fijian cooking has relied on root vegetables, so this relationship has not only helped expand the availability of produce we take for granted such as tomatoes, watermelon, asparagus, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumber and bok choy, but also provided the tourism and hospitality industries with a wider variety of ingredients to satisfy the western palate of visitors.
"These things people thought would never grow in Fiji," Shailesh says.
Food and beverage manager Jason Zvatora adds that apart from meats such as beef, Fiji now enjoys "very low miles" from paddock to plate for its fresh ingredients.
While many herbs, for example, still must be flown in, items such as lettuce only recently have been added to the local crops in the area known as "the salad bowl of Fiji", Jason says.
The Sigatoka valley stretches across an area dominated by the Sigatoka River - Fiji's longest. And while much of the farmland can be reached by vehicle, some can be accessed only on horseback.
Shailesh says the biggest challenge facing top-class kitchens is staff: helping Fijian men and women to see that cooking can be a profession and not just a job. To that aim, he is now appealing to the next generation of cooks by promoting more adventurous culinary methods and skills in schools.
Perhaps some time in the not too distant future, we may see a Fijian MasterChef invention test for real.
Shailesh Naidu QUOTES:
"Very seldom do you see Fijians eating a lean, grilled piece of chicken, fish or steak. They like to use liquid in their cooking (like coconut milk)."
Do you cook much at home?
"No. That's why I've got one (wife).
"At times I want to (cook) but when I want to do it, I do it alone, otherwise there's too many critics.
"I can be very simple and I like simple.
"I'll make a curry if I have the time and a good day. It takes two-and-a-half-hours easily (to slow-cook the meat to tender) and bring out the flavours of the spice.
"I love my lamb.
"If I have my mates around, I do a simple barbecue with an esky of beers - chicken, fish and lamb chops.
"Three hours before, you can marinate (the meat) and leave in the fridge. Every now and then, give them a toss."
SEARED FRESH SEA SNAPPER, KUMALA CAKE, AND TROPICAL SALSA
4x160g snapper fillets
80ml coconut milk
1. Sear the snapper.
2. Saute the chopped onion and tomato, then simmer with coconut milk.
3. Once it is all incorporated, add in the spinach. Season to taste.
KUMALA (Sweet Potato) CAKE
5ml oyster sauce
10ml light soy sauce
Method: 1. Par-boil the whole kumala, peel and grate.
2. Saute the chopped onion, garlic, and ginger together.
3. Mix all the ingredients together and season.
4. Make into cake patties (you can use a cookie cutter for this) and pan-fry.
15ml lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Method: 1. Finely dice the pineapple, pawpaw and cucumber and combine with shredded mint.
2. Add lemon juice and season to taste.
Serve with Palusami Veges (usually cooked underground as a lovo feast) or any kind of boiled veges on the stove.
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