Norman Kalsa is a remarkable figure in Vanuatu’s tourism industry with an enormous amount of experience earned over his four decades working in hospitality. When you first meet Norman, you wouldn’t think that this humble man is actually one of Vanuatu’s most travelled people, having worked as head chef on a tanker vessel for 14 years.
These days, Norman runs his popular Pele Ocean View Bungalow on the small island of Pele, just north of Efate, the island where Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila is located. Norman’s thriving business is famous in Vanuatu for the relaxing ambiance of his bungalow, which is constructed from local, renewable materials, and for the mouth-watering meals made from local produce that he serves.
Norman began his career as a dishwasher at Port Vila’s Intercontinental hotel in 1978. He quickly climbed the kitchen ranks, getting his first big break during his second year when he was assigned to preparing cold dishes. From there, he was promoted to working in the hot kitchen. For a young chef who started as a dishwasher with no culinary school experience, this was a huge achievement.
Norman was soon working as sous chef at various major Vanuatu hotels. During his time as sous chef at Iririki Island Resort, the head chef noticed Norman’s talent for cooking, and asked him to take the lead on the creation of the specials menu. Norman’s lunch and dinner specials gained instant popularity, and shortly after he was headhunted by another leading Port Vila restaurant.
A prominent businessman who was impressed with Norman’s culinary expertise found an opportunity for him in the international shipping industry as Head Chef on an oil tanker operating in the Gulf of Arabia. There, he was a favourite to many through the comfort he provides with his cooking.
Norman returned to Vanuatu in 2002 and found work with a local inbound tour operator cooking meals for international travellers. With his international maritime experience, a few years later he moved to the Maritime College of Vanuatu in Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island. While there, his then superintendent urged him to start his own hospitality business, and in 2015, he began constructing his bungalow.
Norman has a strong sense of community spirit. With the experience gained over his long and varied hospitality career, Norman advocates in his community and nationally for upskilling Vanuatu’s tourism operators and creating sustainable livelihoods for rural people.
During one of his trips back to Pele from Luganville, Norman decided to host a two-week community workshop for the women of his island after noticing that there was room for improvement in terms of food preparation at local bungalows. Norman asked each participating woman to pay a 300vt (US$3) fee which Norman used to purchase ingredients. In the first week, he taught the women how to bake, and after each baking session, he would enlist the women to go out and sell what they had baked. The funds collected contributed to the next week’s workshop, where he taught participants how to deep-fry, grill, boil and prepare nutritionally balanced and healthy main courses using local ingredients.
According to Norman, after completing his workshop, many came to him in tears to express their gratitude for the knowledge that he had given them. People were surprised, as some of the participants were from competing island bungalows on Pele. One workshop participant later noted that even visitors noticed the impact of Norman’s training — one recurring visitor from Australia commented on how much the food presentation standards had improved.
Norman completed his bungalow, Pele Ocean View, in 2019, and quickly gained a sizeable clientele after receiving marketing support from the Vanuatu Tourism Office. However, during his operations, he quickly noticed that his competitors were not getting as many weekend guests as he was, a trend that became even more evident when Vanuatu closed its borders to international visitors in March 2020.
Wanting to see his fellow tourism operators prosper, Norman consulted with members of Pele Island’s Tourism Association on how best to raise the standards of Pele’s tourism businesses in order to disperse tourist visitation across the island. By stressing the importance of using locally-available materials, the island’s businesses were able to reduce their operating costs without sacrificing the quality of the tourist experience. Norman understood that the higher the standards of operation, the more income it meant for the community, and the more sustainable all of the island’s tourism businesses would become in the long run.
Preparations are now underway for a workshop to take place in August that will focus on hygiene and food safety standards. Norman will teach the island’s tourism operators how to safely and hygienically prepare delicious, well-balanced meals using seafood caught in the waters off the island paired with fruits and vegetables grown in the island’s gardens.
Norman’s story of how a young man from a small island has been able to create a long and varied hospitality career for himself—and then use his experience to benefit his whole community—is a great example for all Vanuatu tourism businesses to follow, especially at a time when the tourism and hospitality sector is facing a downturn. The Vanuatu Tourism Office salutes Norman’s service and hopes that his example will inspire others to become sustainable tourism pioneers in their own communities.
Story and Photo Credit: Vanuatu Tourism Office