The next time an American chef grouses about the poor selection of meat in the market or the paucity of parsley, he should think of Jerry Crowe.
As the chef at The Village Hotel on this pristine island in the western Pacific, Crowe has been forced to survive amid scarcity and endure unreliability. And he not only has survived, customers agree, but thrived.
The island of Ponape, where Crowe and his wife, Annie, have lived and worked for the past 20 months, is a lush chunk of volcanic sculpture in the East Caroline Islands about 7 degrees north of the equator. It is part of the vast United States Trust Territory of Micronesia - more than 2,000 islands spanning 3 million square miles, roughly the size of the United States (although total land mass of Micronesia equals less than half the size of Rhode Island). Planes traveling west (Air Micronesia is the only service) land on Ponape's crushed coral runway three times a week. The only other way to get here is by cargo ships, which visit at three-month intervals.
There is no commercial agriculture on the island and no dairy industry, making residents dependent on the U.S. and Australia for most meat and produce. For a chef trying to deliver imaginative and quality food, that presents a formidible challenge.
"We have to put in orders three months in advance," Crowe explained during a tour of The Village, a compound of 15 thatched-roof cottages clinging to a verdant mountainside above the Pacific. "And if something goes wrong along the way - or if somebody lifts something off the ship at the dock - we're stuck for another three months."
An amiable, cigar-smoking native of Cassville, Mo., Crowe accepts such hardships with a laugh and a long puff.
"We should have air-conditioning back here," he said upon entering the kitchen. "But like most things in this part of the world, it broke down and hasn't been fixed for three months." The kitchen does, however, have two huge freezers for storage.
The open-air dining room at The Village, set under a high thatched roof and surrounded by palm and coconut trees, faces the ocean below and several small islands in the distance.
Despite the supply limitations, Crowe and The Village have earned a reputation among the travelers and residents in Micronesia for fine dining in a sea of culinary mediocrity.
Rugged, relatively unscarred by modern instrusions and populated by diffident but hospitable natives (pop.: 4,000), Ponape has been called the second most beautiful island in the Pacific next to Bora Bora. The few tourists who are lucky enough to find their way here can enjoy spectacular diving in a lagoon formed by a coral reef a mile offshore, deep sea fishing, hiking in the mountains, luxuriating under waterfalls or touring the ruins of an 800-year-old Ponapean fortress called Nan Madol.
The Village, which opened in June 1976, was the wild dream of an intrepid California couple, Bob and Patti Arthur. An industrial engineer by trade, Bob Arthur became so enchanted with Ponape upon his first visit in 1969 that he sold everthing back home, borrowed from anyone crazy enough to listen to his scheme and moved to the island with two of his four children in 1971.
Jerry Crowe had similar feelings about Ponape when he flew out in early 1976 to meet the Arthurs after reading their ad for a chef in a Honolulu newspaper. At the time he was working at a restaurant called the Anchorage in Hawaii.
"I had been living on Kauai for two years and really liked island life very much," he recalled. "After coming here I decided to really commit myself and come to a far-out island."
Crowe's cooking career began in his home town in Missouri where he worked (and later owned) his family's "steak and potatoes" restaurant. After that, he owned and operated five restaurants in the state before moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., then Kauai. But even all that experience failed to prepare him for running a kitchen in Ponape.
" A real problem here is the lack of fresh vegetables, such as lettuce and other greens," Crowe remarked while relaxing at the bar after a long night in the kitchen.
"The natives can't understand why anyone would want to eat green vegetables. They consider it all grass. And papaya, which we have to beg, borrow and steal sometimes, they call pig food - they give it to the pigs!"
What the natives do eat grows naturally on the island - taro, breadfruit, yams and bananas. In this rich, volcanic soil yams grow to sizes larger than watermelons. One Ponapean acquaintance recalled that the largest yam he had seen required 50 men to carry.
"Most of the indigenous food is simply not very exciting," Crowe conceded. "Natives eat a lot of starch and fish and rice. I try to experiment a bit, but many times a customer will take one taste of breadfruit or taro and push it aside."
Another Ponapean favorite which Crowe himself has opted to push aside on several occasions is roast dog, which is usually included in menus during feasts.
"I just haven't gotten up the courage to try it," he admitted.
The menu at The Vilage leans heavily toward seafood and poultry, with different types of rice on the side. Much of his cooking includes nuts and tropical fruits; macadamia nut chicken is a favorite. Because there is no lettuce, salads are made from locally grown Chinese cabbage, which is surprisingly sweet.
Some of the fresh fish, such as Yellowfin Tuna and Wahoo (called Ono in Hawaii), are grilled over charcoal with lemon butter. The more fragile fish - Mahi Mahi (a succulent white fish) and equally tasty reef fish - Crowe marinates in white wine and sautees in butter with almonds.
"The fish here is so tasty by itself we find it's best not to do too much with it," he explained.
Another popular dish is squid parmesan. "At least that's my favorite," the chef said. "It's something I devised while out here. It's not easy to come up with these type of recipes because we have no fresh milk, no cottage cheese or sour cream or things like that. I do a lot with yogurt, which we make here with canned milk."
Even though Ponape sits in one of the world's richest fishing grounds, getting fresh fish for the hotel often requires haggling, stealth or outright begging.
"You wouldn't believe it," Crowe said. "The natives here fish for themselves and their families; they don't think about doing it commercially. They don't care about money, unless of course there is something they want badly, like a motor for their boat or new clothes for the wife."
Crowe picks up some fish at a co-op in Kolonia, the island's capital. The town is only six mile away, but the drive on rain-ravaged dirt roads (Ponape gets an average of 182 inches a year) takes nearly an hour.
"The other fish come in from individual fishermen who walk up here at night with one or two fish or maybe a lobster or some crabs under their arms," Crowe said. "But we can't rely on them. One day you'll see him and ask him to come back. He'll say sure, and you'll never see him again. There is no such thing as a contract out here."
Because food supply is so erratic, Crowe's menus for lunch and dinner consist of strips of paper fastened to a cork board with tacks. "Hardly a day goes by where I don't take off some things and put on others," he said.
The Village keeps its prices moderate (averaging between $5 and $8 for everything but steak, which is over $10) despite the high price of importing food.
"We get fish cheap and make our profit there," Crowe said. "But we lose on every piece of imported meat." He estimated that staples cost about 30 percent more here than on the mainland.
Crowe plans to eliminate part of the daily guessing game for menus by catching fish himself in an ocean-going boat he recently had built. Both he and his wife are scuba divers, too, and they plan to spend free time diving for shells and coral.
As the popularity of The Village grows and the owners plan to expand, strains on the limited kitchen increase (Crowe has one assistant). Leaning back in a wicker chair, sipping a drink and savoring what must be one of the world's most magnificent restaurant views, Crowe mused, "We'll have to make some changes when that happens, but it'll work out. I just hope my boat is ready soon."