Q&A with Wakaya’s Culinary Mastermind, Chef Marielle Hajj!

Chef Marielle Hajj has always had a love for cooking and has been experimenting in the culinary arts her entire life. Born and raised in Mexico City and of Lebanese descent, Marielle started cooking at a young age and greatly influenced by her family and friends. She earned money during her teenage years selling crepes to her mother’s friends. By the time she finished high school, she had made up her mind to attend culinary school and make her passion for cooking her career. 

Throughout her 22 years of cooking professionally, Marielle has worked every job imaginable inside of a kitchen. From washing pots and pans late at night after serving executive dining rooms of Banamex (now Citibank) to working with the best international culinary figures and finest kitchens in the world such as Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. 

For 18 years, Marielle had been running the kitchen of her catering company in Mexico City. Then, she was offered an opportunity on the Island of Wakaya… 

 

What brought you to Wakaya? 

A: It was a combination of a want to seek something new and the result of consistent hard work that made the move to Wakaya possible. I had a fascination to know a new culture, new things, and a new way of living. When the opportunity presented itself, my family and I decided to take it. It may sound simple, but life just brought me to Wakaya. 

 

What is it about the Fijian culture and island locals that enchant you?

A: Where to begin! I love so many things about the people and culture of Fiji. The people here always look you in the eyes and make a soulful connection, which is something that speaks volumes to how their culture values individuals. 

I admire how much Fijians appreciate the concept of time and that there is no time like the present. Fijians truly deliver their hearts and souls to each moment, never wasting a precious moment in life. This love of life is particularly evident on the excited faces of the young children who live here. 

I also sincerely appreciate the fertility of the land, the richness of the ocean, the freshness, and the variety of produce on the island.

 

What South Pacific influences do you incorporate into your cooking? 

A: I am thrilled to be working with a fusion between native Fijian and Indo- Fijian recipes. It is about going back to basic ingredients embodied with sophisticated global influences and techniques. There are so many amazing vegetables, meats, and spices for a chef to play around within this part of the world. It is truly a paradise. 

 

What is unique about the Fijian and Indo-Fijian style of cooking used on Wakaya?

I find it very charming how these two very different cultures have come together to form an incredible cooking style of powerful flavors. Fijian gastronomy is traditionally more basic and relies heavily on fresh foods naturally available on the islands. Indian cuisine, on the other hand, is extremely rich and composed of complicated spices. 

The blend of these two culinary styles produce some unusual yet delicious combinations that you can only find in the South Pacific. Native Fijians have adopted the use of curries into their vegetables and traditional dishes. While Indian cultures commonly enjoy Casava, breadfruit, and have incorporated many other native Fijian ingredients into everyday meals.

 

What are other influences shine through in your cooking? 

A: My Mexican background and Lebanese heritage are, without a doubt, an inspiration for my cooking. When combined with the Wakaya kitchen teams Fijian and Indian backgrounds, our joint heritages culminate a wonderfully unique culinary style. We also like to let the fresh produce speak for itself, serving fruit and veggies picked the same morning or the catch of the day!

Lastly, I hope that my sincere passion for creating and serving delicious food comes through in my cooking. As a chef, you have to cook with a passion or why cook at all.

 

Where did you learn to cook? 

A: I started cooking at home at a very early age. I learned from watching relatives and family friends in the community work with the ingredients that were available to create thoughtful and mouth-watering recipes. 

I later pursued a culinary school education and mentored with Arnulfo Luengas (Mexico), Daniel Boulud, (New York) Francois Payard (New York), and Jean Piere Vigato (Paris, France). 

 

Can you tell us about your signature cooking techniques and process? 

A: My platform or basis is always classic French cuisine which I love to combine with a mixture of Mexican and middle eastern flavors.  I am very strict about freshness and quality of ingredients as I believe that if you have this advantage more than half of your problem is solved. In Fiji, I have discovered, incorporated, and valued the spontaneity of the flavors and colors that are so representative of this country and culture.

 

Is there a particular dish or food that everyone visiting Fiji should try?

A: Everything on the menu! The longer the guests stay, the better they discover our cooking experience at Wakaya. However, if you want to try something genuinely iconic to Fiji, I recommend a dish called Kokoda, which is a ceviche with coconut milk, lemon, and fresh catch.

[Kokoda: This is a very special dish made up of raw Spanish Mackerel (Walu) with ‘Miti.’ Fresh fish is marinated in freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice and left to “cook” for several hours. Coconut milk is added after it is “cooked” together with finely diced tomatoes, chilies, and salt.]

 

Where do you source your ingredients? 

A: Most of the vegetables and fruits we use come fresh from our nursery and farm, which to any chef this is as good as it gets! We fish daily from the reef and also do line fishing. We bring premium cuts of meat, cheeses, and other ingredients from Australia or NZ.

 

What types of fish do you serve that are native to Fijian waters?

A: The Boxfish is unique and special to Fijian waters. It has a white flesh that is similar to Dover Sole and is extremely tasty. 

 

What types of fruits and vegetables do you cook with from the island? 

Fruits and vegetables grow and prosper on Wakaya like no other among the Fijian Islands. Although not entirely exclusive of Fiji, the passion fruit, soursop and pawpaw (papaya) are some of my favorite fruit to work with on the island. They all grow here, and the richness, the scent and the consistency of those three fruits in Fiji are hard to match and are so abundant. 

 

Was it important for you to provide an entirely organic dining experience? 

A: Absolutely, I think organic is much more than a trend. It is the right way to do things and a path towards a better diet and way of life. Fiji is very fertile and tropical, making everything that grows here full of flavor and even more so when farmed naturally or organically.

 

Tell us about your team and how you work together to provide a sensational dining experience? 

A: My team consists of very talented chefs who are passionate about food, nature, and share my love and curiosity for testing and tasting. We provide an exquisite dining experience where we share the love for the ingredients, the culture, and the freshness of our menu with our guests.

 

Where is your favorite place to serve and entertain guests on the island? 

A: This is a tough question; there are so many magical places on the island to enjoy a meal. But if I had to pick my absolute favorite, I love serving lunch for two at Vuni Tavola beach. The beach itself is what I consider one of the most beautiful corners of the world. Guests can look out over the magnificent tones of blue in the ocean, surrounded by the smell of the sea salt and white sandy beach. Relaxing under the shelter of old Dilo Trees at Vuni Tavol beach is the perfect setting to enjoy a meal. I particularly like serving informal yet delicious lunches there, tea time at sunset with some beautiful sandwiches, or some fresh petits fours and perhaps a bottle of champagne…

 

What sets Wakaya’s dining experience apart from other Fijian islands? 

A: Our creative style of cooking, impeccable service, fresh produce, and overall perfection is what makes the culinary experience in Wakaya one of a kind. 

 

What do you want guests to take away from the Wakaya culinary experience?  

A: We want our guests to have a unique experience full of new flavors and food made with love by a professional and passionate team. 

 

Do you have seasonal menus? 

A: Yes, we grow everything as in its nature, and we follow what is available in season land and sea.

 

Any new news from the kitchen that we can share with guests?

A: We want to start a new orchard of cacao trees… so stay tuned for some fantastic recipes from them!

 

Q&A with Wakaya’s legendary dive master, Meli!

Scuba diving in Wakaya is a truly unique and euphoric experience. The reefs surrounding Wakaya are one of a select few protected Marine Reserves in Fiji. The team of Wakaya has been designated as wardens of this Reserve. This honor ensures we protect the reefs and marine life, in order to minimize traffic and maintain its unique natural beauty.

To learn more about the enchanting waters and brilliant sealife surrounding Wakaya, we sat down with the island’s legendary dive master, Meli, to tell us more…

 

How long have you been diving in Wakaya?

A: I have been diving around Wakaya for over 10 years, however, I started diving 25 years ago. Diving is my life and my passion.

 

How do the reefs in Wakaya compare to other diving locations in the South Pacific?

A: Wakaya has eleven identified dive locations. The best way to describe the dives around Wakaya is the abundance of colors, the health of the corals and the diversity of the ocean life.

 

What kind of ocean-life do typically sea around Wakaya?

A: Wakaya is well known for the number of turtles, coral trout, sponges, lionfish, blue ribbon eels, hammerhead and gray reef sharks, barracuda, and anemones. We sometimes get lucky enough to swim with manta rays!

 

How experienced a diver should you be to dive around Wakaya?

A: Our guests come and dive with an array of experience, from avid divers to first-timers. Everyone will need to be PADI certified, which you can either do before arriving, or we will gladly arrange for you to get certified in Wakaya.  

 

What do you like to be sure guests experience while out on a dive?

A: What is most important for me is to ensure our divers feel safe and enjoy each dive. There is nothing I love more than seeing their faces when they discover the beauty of all of the different colors of coral.

 

What is the best time of year to scuba dive in Wakaya?

A: I particularly recommend the winter months June, July, and August because the water is a bit colder (between 72-79 degrees) and clearer, and there is a higher likelihood of seeing manta rays.

 

How deep are you able to dive off of the reef?

A: We can dive up to 60 feet around the reefs of Wakaya

 

Do you offer boat dives or shore dives?

A: All of Wakaya’s dive sites are only a few minutes away by boat.

 

What all is included in the Wakaya dive package?

A: The package includes diving with dive instructors with a vast knowledge of the local reefs, up to date dive equipment, and of course the beautiful scenic boat ride. In addition, if you would like a customized package including visiting a private beach for a picnic lunch or anything you can imagine, please inquire!

 

Do you offer night dives?

A: Yes, we offer night dive, which are a magical experience, however, you must be an advanced open water diver.

 

Do you provide an underwater photography service?

A: We encourage guests to bring their go-pro or any other equipment they might want and myself or fellow divers can take pictures, however, we can also bring a professional photographer upon request.

 

What’s the rarest fish that guests could possibly see during a dive?

A: The rarest fish in our waters is the Ghost Pipefish


Photo by Steven Childs, via flickr, Creative Commons License.

 

Celebrate Our New Beginnings With Us—We’re Ready for You!

Wakaya Club & Spa Receives a Full Renovation Makeover

 

Come discover the private Island of Wakaya, A new leadership team has brought the iconic Wakaya Spa and Club back to life with elegance, luxury and sophistication through its redesign, cuisine and amenities.

 

After Fiji experienced a tropical storm in 2016 and a change in the management of the Island, we decided to seize the opportunity to do extensive renovations to the iconic resort. We focused on improving our accommodations, dining options, and grounds, and broadening our list of activities.

Today, Wakaya Club & Spa offers a one of a kind private island experience surrounded by some of the most pristine beauty nature has to offer, a rich culture embraced by our warm-hearted community, exquisite cuisine and an abundance of luxury providing the ultimate sanctuary for our guests.

Embracing a Unique Opportunity

Among the most eye-catching of the resort’s renovations is the redesigned landscaping, which incorporates a series of verdant Fijian gardens and dense groves of native plant life. In addition to providing colorful beauty and aroma, the landscaping provides privacy to our guest bures (freestanding Fijian structures), offering our guest suites both a private garden down to the beach and a private rear reading garden.

Each of our newly renovated bures provide an indoor-outdoor experience embracing the beauty of Fiji’s natural environment as well as ensuring all of the lavish comforts of the indoors. Each bure boasts cathedral ceilings, King-size beds with 100% cotton sheets, open-air lava rock showers, separate living rooms and relaxing decks on either side.

Many updated touches are showcased in our two deluxe bures: The Governor’s Bure, a 2,400-square-foot villa with a Jacuzzi bathtub, fine Italian sheets, and a secluded garden with a waterfall; and the Ambassador’s Bure, a two-bedroom oceanfront retreat with a full kitchen, living room and a private two-room spa outfitted with a lanai and a plunge pool.

In addition to our bures, we are proud to offer two private homes: Vale’O “House in the Clouds”, a lavish 12,000-square-foot, three bedroom home which sits on 16 lush acres and offers a host of luxuries: splendid ocean views, a rock-rimmed pool with a waterfall and a Jacuzzi, a night-lit tennis court, and the services of a personal chef and an on-call driver.

Finally, for those times when extraordinary luxury is a must, we’re proud to offer Seqa Na Leqa villa, with a state-of-the-art kitchen, ample living space, a master wing, with separate his and her bathrooms, dressing rooms and massage rooms joined by a spa pool. Also included is a private guest suite and a one hundred foot infinity-edge pool on the ocean’s edge.

We owe our nature-inspired look to Mexican designer Bibiana Huber, who helped us incorporate timber from trees downed by the cyclone and volcanic rock from around the island into the architectural elements and furniture. We spared no expense on the upgrade—throughout our resort, guests will notice elegant details and modern touches. The transformation is truly remarkable.

Breathing New Life Into Our Slice of Paradise

It’s not just the accommodations and grounds at Wakaya Club & Spa that have gotten a facelift. Our restaurant’s menu has also been reinvigorated, thanks to the efforts of award-winning Executive Chef Marielle Hajj. With extensive culinary expertise and multicultural roots, Marielle takes our menu to the next level, always pushing epicurean boundaries with the freshest, most delectable creations.

Fun activities are a must on any relaxing getaway, so we’ve added even more options to the list. Previous guests know the thrill of snorkeling or scuba diving in the healthy reefs just offshore, but now they can also make use of paddleboards, Hobie Cats, clear-bottom kayaks and pedal boats. Even our recreation room offers an upgraded experience, as it’s now outfitted with new books, games, and a flat-screen TV.

Active types will enjoy our professionally designed golf course, our fully equipped gymnasium, and our hiking and running trails. To help guests experience the splendor of the surrounding landscape, we can arrange day trips such as helicopter tours, fishing trips, day trips to nearby islands, and more.

And, of course, we highly recommend that all of our guests make time to savor our private island’s jaw-dropping beaches, with diamond-white sand and water as warm as a bath. Wander in any direction and you’ll come to a pristine stretch of coast you can claim for a day of carefree sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, or simply relaxing in the shade.

Celebrate Our New Beginnings With Us—We’re Ready for You!

We’re immensely proud of our restoration, and we like to think our resort’s rebirth is a testament to the resilience, dedication, and generosity of our local staff and our Fijian neighbors.

Let us show you why Wakaya Club & Spa is regarded as one of the most exclusive and prestigious resorts in the world. Come visit us soon!

Q&A with resort manager Antonio Aja

Part of the appeal here at Wakaya is the charismatic and generous staff who ensures your vacation at our resort is truly unforgettable. One of these remarkable people is Antonio…

Antonio Aja is the General Manager of the iconic Wakaya Club and Spa. Antonio has been working in the hospitality industry for 20 years and has brought his worldly expertise to Wakaya island. Antonio, a native to Mexico, attended university in Mexico City before moving to London for his masters in management. After graduating, he moved to New York to work in publishing but ultimately found his way into the catering industry. Antonio went on to start his own catering company and several successful restaurants in Mexico City. In 2016, Antonio and his family moved to Wakaya Island to find their piece of paradise.

We wanted to find out what drew Antonio to Wakaya, learn more about his experiences on the island and understand why the newly renovated resort is so special, so we asked him a few questions.

Tell us about the first time that you saw the resort. How did it make you feel and when did you know that this was something you wanted to be a part of?

From the moment I spotted the island from the airplane, I felt that it was a place my family and I could call home. Then once I landed and experienced the warmth and kindness of the Fijian people, I was certain of it.

–Antonio

Throughout the years what have you brought to the resort? What efforts have you made to ensure guests have a one-of-a-kind utopian experience?

A: If there is something that we know how to do well in Wakaya, it is caring for our guests and making sure their experience on the island greatly surpasses their expectations. Most of our clientele have had the opportunity to visit the best luxury hotels and restaurants in the world so it is important for us to keep the bar set high for customer satisfaction. Fortunately, we have found that the island’s size, beauty, and culture, allow us to create unique and long-lasting experiences for all of our guests.

What are some of the new renovations?

A: We completely redesigned the landscape surrounding the resort which compliments what we consider one of the greatest changes; opening up all of the bures and homes with floor to ceiling glass windows and doors. In addition we have outfitted the entire resort with the highest quality furnishings, and incorporated natural materials, even using some of the wood from fallen trees around the Island. Our objective was to integrates modern luxury and really highlight the Islands beautiful natural surroundings.

To compliment the bures, we also redesigned the pools of Vale O (one of our private villas) and the resort itself. We wanted all of our common spaces to match our overall design goals. We hope our guests will feel we met and surpassed our goals!

What are you most excited for new guests and returning guests to experience?

A: The landscape and our beaches! As well as our renovated rooms, and to experience our cuisine; Chef Marielle Hajj has created an exquisite menu combining the local products with worldly techniques! Overall, we have created more dining and leisure locations throughout the island for our guests to have many unforgettable experiences!

Is the resort offering any new amenities or services?

A: Yes, we increased the number of water activities! We offer paddle boarding, Hobie Cats, kayaks, pedal boats, and of course scuba diving and snorkeling gear. We also upgraded the recreation room with a large flat screen television and added new games and books. One of the things we are also excited about is our Spa’s collaboration with Pure Fiji (Fiji’s leading brand in luxury body care as well as skin and hair products).

Do you think that you were able to recapture the original magic of the resort?

A: Wakaya is certainly still a magical place! The beauty, elegance and privacy are the foundation upon which the resort was build and why it was regarded as one of the most unique and exceptional places in the world to visit. We believe we have embraced and maintained, and hopefully brought out more of, these qualities. Ultimately our guests will be the judges!

What does the future hold for the Wakaya Club & Spa? What are you most looking forward to in 2019?

A: Our entire team is excited and ready to assist our guests in what we hope will be an experience of a lifetime. We are excited to see returning guests visit and rediscover Wakaya Club & Spa all over again, and for our new guests to fall in love with this island many call paradise!