By Rajan Sami
My first introduction to Kanalevu Kitchen, the popular eatery at Suva’s National Stadium, came by way of a younger colleague in 2020, who was then following the emerging food brand on social media.
Following their trail of enticing food posts, we soon found ourselves at a tiny wooden cottage just outside Suva’s Aquatic Centre, where Kanalevu ran a three-month pop-up, co-sharing a space with an existing Korean restaurant.
It was there that I first tried their ‘Island Nachos’, Kanalevu co-founder Vui Saketa’s Pasifika take on the Mexican staple.
A fan of localising ingredients, she had swapped out corn chips with thinly-sliced crisps made from kakana dina: taro, cassava, breadfruit, vudi (plantain) and sweet potato atop which sat either kai, octopus, or cured poke; rourou instead of guacamole; and a spicy pineapple salsa.
The creative substitutions worked; and hit the right balance of Salt Fat Acid Heat advocated by Californian chef Samin Nosrat in her bestselling book and Netflix series.
On subsequent trips back to the pool-side bure, we found other Fijians hovering over their lunches with their phones out to capture the perfect food shot.
For Kanalevu Kitchen, which Vui started as a home-based corporate catering business in 2017 (having left a secure bank job to do so), the pop-up allowed a transition to serving restaurant goers within a bricks-and-mortar situation. Today, it does both.
At the outset, the small business had zero marketing budget but managed to find an audience with enticing food shots, a catchy brand name (Kanalevu means big eater in the iTaukei language) and an exciting concept: iTaukei food for a modern audience.
Before places like Kanalevu (and the excellent Bar Belle at the National Fitness Centre) came along, iTaukei food, which can be labour intensive to make, could be tricky to find in Suva’s restaurants (and outside of food courts, the municipal market and people’s homes).
Previous Fijian food stalwarts like Takayawa’s Vale ni Kana in Toorak and Mary Nelson’s Old Mill Cottage Café on Carnarvon St had been long shuttered by the time this new wave of iTaukei eateries cropped up with a younger generation at their helm.
For her Island Nachos, Vui was inspired by the Mexican joints she frequented on an extended trip to Sacramento, California’s capital.
Back home in Fiji, she’d craved those nachos, couldn’t find anything close, and did the next best thing: she made her own.
Island nachos are sadly no longer on the menu although the same ingredients can be found in other dishes like the Kusima Plate, which features kokoda, local greens including nama, ota, and rourou; and root crops.
You will also find some hyper-specific delicacies like rourou moci (river prawns steamed in taro leaf parcels) on the Delta Delight Platter that’s typically served on Saturdays, and sourced directly from women in Lokia Village in Rewa.
The change came with the move to a bigger venue in 2021 (just before Suva’s Covid-19 related shutdown) and a shift in Kanalevu’s core demographic.
While social media savvy millennials and Gen Zs were early adopters of the brand (and still frequent the restaurant), their parents are now Kanalevu’s main patrons.
The Art of the Pivot
Vui, and husband Frank (who also left a steady bank job as the business expanded) have had to master the art of the pivot as they’ve navigated the ups and downs of an evolving food business. They’ve had no choice, they say.
Just as their new restaurant was due to open in April 2021, Covid-19 hit Fiji and offices in Suva shuttered, cancelling all of their corporate catering gigs. Their regular customers worked from home and no one came out to lunch.
To stay afloat, Kanalevu did graze boxes filled with an assortment of goodies that homebound folks sent each other during lockdown, and to mark special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and such.
The brand’s Feed a Fijian initiative, which provided paid-for meals to frontline workers in Suva, was another lifeline for the business.
It started by chance when they gave food to soldiers stationed outside the medical emergency facility set up next door, at the old gymnasium.
This sparked an idea and they were able to get corporate and community donations to expand the service, dedicating two days a week to making and providing meals to frontliners at health centres and schools at the height of Suva’s COVID-related lockdowns.
Prioritising the guest experience
Having come from the banking industry, the couple has made customer service a key point of difference for their business.
Arriving patrons are typically greeted by a host and shown to their table, then wait staff appear with menus and take orders, checking-in during the meal in a manner that is unobtrusive and make you feel cared for.
What I have just described is the baseline one expects in any eating establishment. Sadly, this is not the case for most places you visit in Fiji, where enduring poor service is often part of your food experience.
During the COVID-related closure of Fijian tourism, Tia Tikoduadua, a cousin of Vui’s, who specialises in food and beverage for the hotel industry, relocated to Suva and trained Kanalevu staff.
Having found success with iTaukei food, it might be surprising to learn that Vui’s earliest food memories are that of her mum and aunts making English comfort foods at home: roasts, shepherd’s pie, and the like, which she hopes to get on the menu.
Kanalevu Kitchen on Facebook
This article appeared in the first issue of Fiji Traveller. Issue 2 is out now!