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!