“To create a new dish, you must first sketch the idea on paper,” explained Executive Chef Markus Nufer of Outrigger’s Castaway Island, Fiji. Chef Markus is world-renowned for blending his experiences of different flavors from every corner of the globe. In an interview, we discussed his approach to cooking, what inspired him to become a chef, how best to maintain a consistent level of excellent service and cuisine, and more.
How would you describe your approach and philosophy to cooking?
My philosophy to cooking stems from traveling the world and being exposed to new ideas, trends and flavors. Coupled with my own experience at high-end hotel chains and ultimately with Crystal Cruises, you come to appreciate that while cooking is a skill you can learn, like other professions, you must be passionate and earn the respect of others to succeed.
Was there a moment or experience early on that led you to a culinary career, or have you always been drawn to becoming a chef?
I was attracted to cooking when I was quite young, and finished my degree as a chef from the Swiss Culinary Academy when I was 19. By the time I was 24, I was drawn to seeing the world, growing both personally and professionally. As a chef, there was no better avenue to pursue this goal: I worked in Fiji, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Singapore, and ended up with Crystal Cruises, first as Chef de Cuisine on the Crystal Symphony. I then became Executive Chef, working across the Crystal Cruise Line fleet for 16 years—during which I made 13 world cruises and worked alongside 300 guest chefs from around the world.
With Castaway Island Fiji Resort being one of the best hotels in the South Pacific, how do you maintain such a high level of excellence when it comes to cuisine?
The key is to constantly be on the lookout for new or better products, such as organic beef and lamb from New Zealand that’s chilled, not frozen, and sustainable fish sources and organic vegetables from Fiji. You need to be creative, and experiment with new looks for food—you eat first with your eyes. You must constantly push the boundary for even higher standards, and you need to invest in your team, training them to be stronger, trusting their own abilities and taking more leadership roles. Cooking is a team sport.
What are some of the dishes and cocktails on the menu that have come to symbolize the dining experience at the property?
At Castaway Island, every restaurant has its own history and evolution. For example, Restaurant 1808 is a Fijian-Asian fusion and is the recipient of the AON Fiji Excellence in Tourism Award for Best Restaurant—something my team and I are very proud of. The Water’s Edge is where we cook the freshest products we have including organic beef with a modern, Chinese twist. At Sundowner you can find the best pizza in town such as the Broccoli Pesto. Some of my favorite dishes are the Asian Braised Short Ribs, the Pizza Sandwich, Spiced Team Lolly Pop, and the Castaway Crab Cake.
What is the process like for you with respect to coming up with a new dish—from your mind to the plate?
Cooking is not simply a profession, it’s fun. You get to exercise imagination in mixing different ideas with different flavors and cooking techniques, which makes this skillset quite unique. First, you create the idea you have on paper. Then, you put together the recipe, and essentially cook it with trial and error with your team until you get it just right. Cooking is the ultimate expression of creativity.
Is there such thing as the perfect dish?
Since we care immensely about our food, I believe every dish that leaves our kitchen is both perfect in taste and presentation. However, I will say that you can always improve dishes and there is no limit to perfecting presentation, but it comes back to originality, look and taste.