"Aitutaki is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful, award-winning, not to mention, friendliest places in the world"

The Cook Islands is renowned for its idyllic holiday environment, friendly and relaxed beach resorts, delicious local cuisine, and vaka sailing; all aspects of the Cook Islands that have been influenced by one of the pioneers Cook Islands tourism, Thomas Koteka, who is today co-owner of the Aitutaki Village resort on Ootu Beach on the island of Aitutaki.

A Cook Islander and Mangaian by birth, Thomas spent his first ten years on the island of Mangaia. His parents, both in the medical field, had been posted by the Government to serve on the island.

His family relocated to Auckland in 1964 for primary, secondary and tertiary education. It was there that Thomas said he: ‘fell into the tourism industry’.

“During secondary school, I worked in a restaurant called the Hungry Horse. It was dynamic, serving 500-600 meals at both lunchtime and dinner. I loved the atmosphere and the hustle and bustle. I fell in love with working in the kitchen”.

Thomas said it was this experience that influenced his career choice in hospitality.

“In 1974, the Hospitality and Training School at Auckland Technical Institute had just opened, and I was in the first induction of a three-year diploma course. During this time, I was also an apprentice at the Hotel Intercontinental, mixing daily with accomplished chefs from Europe.

“At that time the cuisine and training was the ‘old style.’ I learned everything from boning a cow, to peeling and shaping potatoes.

When Thomas finished his apprenticeship it was suggested that to strengthen his career he should travel abroad and gain experience.

”The Hilton Hotel Group in Canada was recommended and I was given a person to contact. I wrote a letter applying for a position in one of their kitchens. A month or so later I got a job offer for a position in one of the Hilton Hotels in Toronto.

“After a short break in Rarotonga I boarded a jet plane and via Los Angeles and Chicago landed in Toronto on a snow covered Christmas Day in 1977. On that journey I carried my set of kitchen knives in my carry on bag - those were the good ole days! 18 hours after my arrival I started in the main kitchen of the Toronto Airport Hilton.

After some time based in Toronto, Thomas was offered short work engagements at other Hilton properties in Canada, the UK and Europe.

“During this time I met many interesting kitchen personalities of different nationalities, all of whom influenced my outlook and experiences in the kitchen.

One of the highlights of Thomas’ career was representing Hilton International at the 1981 North American Salon Culinaire. He gained a 2nd place with a ‘Chaud Froid Chicken Display’. “Not bad for a Cook Islander.”

In 1983, Thomas said he started missing home and made the decision to head back to the warmth of the Cook Islands. Soon after he landed in Rarotonga he was offered a position of Sous Chef at the Rarotongan Resort Hotel, which was then operated by the Tourism Hotel Corporation of New Zealand. Soon after he was promoted to Head Chef, becoming the first local to replace an ex-pat in the organisation. This was regarded as a whole new thing for the Rarotongan.”

He was then tempted to Waitomo in New Zealand, but was subsequently offered the position of Executive Chef back at The Rarotongan, which was under new ownership. He returned to Rarotonga in early 1985 to take up the position.”

Thomas returned with his girlfriend Lizzy, also a Cook Islander: “After my return, we decided to get married and start a family”.

“My career at the Rarotongan expanded into executive management, and with a change in circumstances the opportunity to start a new journey was offered, and in late 1989 I began managing Pacific Resort at Muri. I stayed with this group until 2012.”

During that time, Thomas, a keen member of the Rarotonga Sailing Club, had much to do with the introduction of a Vaka Sailing Canoe Class competition on the lagoon at Muri.

“I needed a sailing craft the would carry my young son and I together, so towards the end of 1990s we developed the Vaka class so I could sail competitively with my son. Historically, the club (celebrating its 75th year this year) used to sail vakas in its early days. Tangaroa 18 is the class of boat that I developed”.

Drawing to the end of his time with Pacific Resorts, Thomas had been investigating business opportunities in Aitutaki when the property Samade on the Beach came on the market .

In 2013, Thomas and his family went into partnership with Aitutakan-born local businessman, politician, Teina Bishop and his family, to set up Aitutaki Village (formerly Samade on the Beach).

“Aitutaki Village is perfectly located in a cul-de-sac at the end of the island, only minutes from the airport.

“We are a boutique resort with twelve air-conditioned garden bungalows. A three-star property in a 5-star location! Our Blue Lagoon Restaurant and Bar is situated on the beach and lagoon. Our guest facilities include stand-up paddle-boards and kayaks.”

Naturally, Thomas focuses much of his energies on the food and beverage area. He sources most of the fresh produce and seafood from local suppliers and in the menus strives to offer a balance of experiences for most tastes.

“Obviously seafood features highly on the menu, along with curries, stewed goat, pork belly and prime rib-eye with garlic prawns, which is a local favourite. From the bar the daily cocktails are popular to enjoy during sunsets overlooking Aitutaki Lagoon,” said Thomas.

One of his recommended dishes is ‘Ika Mata’, raw fish in English. It’s an iconic dish around the South Pacific with many variations. Thomas has five rules in making this dish – 1) Always use fresh Tuna. - 2) Soak for at least two hours in salted water before cooking. - 3) Cook (marinate) in a combination of ½ Lime and ½ Lemon Juice for no more than 60 minutes. - 4) Always use fresh coconut cream. - 5) Season to taste and only add your vegetable garnish just before serving.

“Every visitor to the islands should try Ika Mata, it’s the real taste of the Pacific.

“Lizzy and I love Aitutaki to bits. We are privileged to live here. It’s so peaceful at this end of Aitutaki. Hands down, Aitutaki is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful, award-winning, not to mention, friendliest places in the world”

Visit Aitutaki Village

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