Fiji on a plate
In stark contrast to the antagonistic atmosphere in commercial kitchens, Castaway Island's executive chef Lance Seeto says he now has "a kitchen full of chefs who sing".
Seeto, an Australian Chinese chef from Melbourne, thought it would be fun to spend a year working in Fiji.
Five years later he's a celebrity chef known for transforming the region's cuisine and winning culinary accolades for the tiny South Pacific nation.
Revered as Fiji's first foodie ambassador, he's recently returned from Washington DC and Los Angeles where he cooked for diplomats, UN big wigs and the media.
Fiji has always been known as a great place for a relaxing holiday but what's on the menu has usually been pretty ordinary. And that's what Seeto has been changing at the coal face with natural, regional foods cooked imaginatively in a fusion of Fijian, Indian and Chinese styles.
"Those three cultures don't exist together anywhere else," Seeto said.
"I want to put the flavours and technique of Fiji on a plate.
"I isolate the elements, the flavours and the techniques of Fijian cuisine."
And while he's been busy enhancing the menu at the sublime resort of Castaway Island, Fiji's people and culture have turned his life upside down.
Seeto says he's finally impressed his Chinese parents who were ashamed their son was a "mere cook" instead of a banker, doctor - or the IT professional he tried to become.
He admits it's his media profile that's won over his mum who, when she saw an article on him in Qantas magazine, asked every passenger on the plane to hand over their copy.
Seeto is the star of Fiji's top rating cooking series Taste Of Paradise: The Foods Of Life, which screens in 13 South Pacific countries. That gig stemmed from his weekly column in the Fiji Times and later this year he will release his memoir cookbook Coconut Bliss. He also broadcasts on Radio Australia to an audience of 500,000.
His innovative and very modern fusion of South Pacific, Indian and Chinese cooking comes with a large dollop of wisdom about life. Living in the pristine tropical island of Castaway has transformed him.
The postcard beauty of the private 70-hectare lush, tropical island in the heart of the stunning Mamanuca islands would be enough to seduce any visitor but it's the people and the produce that have inspired him.
"For me it's turned out to be a whole new career and lifestyle," he said.
"Fiji has a culture that lives and sees the world completely differently to us.
"Fijians don't judge or label. They couldn't care less about your hair, clothes or make-up.
"They are looking at your heart - do you have a good heart?"
And that's the philosophy that Castaway offers its guests, right smack bang in the middle of paradise.
There's no TV or internet in guest rooms - a gutsy move in an exclusive resort.
"The whole idea is disconnection and not everyone is comfortable with that. But our clients come here so they are not worrying about their problems at home.
"It's about re-connecting with your kids - kids are forced to engage and communicate."
There's no doubt the extraordinary friendliness and overt happiness of the Fijians and "Fiji time" (take your time) makes you stop and think.
Seeto believes Fijians' traditional lifestyle and ownership of their land is responsible for their astounding contentment. Many indigenous Fijians still live traditionally in villages, grow their own food and hunt for meat and fish.
"They don't have mortgage stress, they grow their own food - they don't really need much cash. They don't yearn and dream of material possessions."
Castaway's guests are the beneficiaries of Seeto's creative fusion cuisine. Castaway's beachfront "1808" restaurant was recently named Best Restaurant at the AON Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards.
In 1808 the first Chinese arrived in Fiji on board the American brig Eliza after being shipwrecked off Nairai Island. This tumultuous event was the start of the merging of cultures and cuisine.
The blending of cuisine and the local fresh produce is a critical element for Seeto.
He doesn't go to the market, the fish come to him. The fishermen deliver their catch fresh from the sea and he generally buys the lot - about 600kg to 700kg a week. Most of the meat he sources from Tasmania, the lamb from NZ.
He prides himself on tweaking traditional recipes. The Indian influence is huge and many of the curry recipes are milder but more intense - such as his delicious mango and lime duck curry - thanks to the organic spice farms strategically located in Fiji's rainforests.
The Chinese with a twist is apparent in his delicious seawater pork sung choi bao which he describes as pork belly infused for three days in a brine of natural sea water and spices.
Seeto came up with the concept of using the surrounding pristine sea water to provide a natural seasoning for traditional Fijian cooking. The dish also incorporates Indian ginger kuchla, and local guava jam, all ensconced in a lettuce cup.
The Fijian/Polynesian and Melanesian and Micronesian influence is clear in his green bamboo steamed fish in scorched coconut milk with charred sugarcane blossom, served in the sugarcane shell.
Seeto says the Australian government has also helped vastly improve the cuisine in Fiji's kitchens by training Fijian chefs with an Ausaid funded hospitality program.
The Australian Pacific Technical College with Australian lecturers and curriculum now provides badly needed professional training for young chefs.
Hospitality is the main employment option for Fiji and most aspire to a job in the tourism industry.
"The Australian government has been doing some good things here food wise," he said.
It has also provided the money to establish a duck farm and now Seeto says Fiji's ducks have a more tender and earthy flavour than those available in Australia.
It's likely Fiji's gain is Australia's loss as Seeto and his fusion style cuisine are staying in paradise.
"It's hard to imagine going back. I have a kitchen full of chefs who sing."
Life's just too sweet in a kitchen operating on Fiji time.
IF YOU GO
STAYING THERE: Per night bure (wood and straw hut) rates on Castaway Island are as follows: island bure - $F1140 (NZ$708.7), ocean bure - $F1260 and beach bure - $F1452, including taxes.
PLAYING THERE: Meal plans at Castaway Island are available from $F155per day for adults and $F78 for children.
Rates include complimentary use of snorkelling equipment, non-motorised water sports equipment including catamarans, kayaks, windsurfers, glass bottom boats, stand-up paddleboards, tennis court and wi-fi.
For more details go to castawayfiji.com.
The writer travelled as guest of Outrigger Resorts Fiji.