After a year of cooking my way through a selection of Lois Daish’s recipes, it’s time to move on to other projects. Lois & Me has given me a new repertoire of recipes and an even greater appreciation for Lois as I encountered chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, and foodies who are as adamant as I am that Lois deserves food hero status.
Lois & Me has been about recognising and celebrating a forgotten foodie. Restaurateur Martin Bosley calls her the Elizabeth David of New Zealand cooking and is emphatic that she ought to be a Dame. Food writer Ginny Grant counts her as a food hero and lauds her as our answer to Joyce Molyneux (British chef who was one of the first woman to win a Michelin star). Columnist Lauraine Jacobs still feels Lois’ legacy as a predecessor writer of the New Zealand Listener food column many years on.
Yet Lois Daish is not a familiar name for most New Zealanders. Frustratingly all of Lois’ cookbooks are out of print, but for those lucky enough to own one, these books are still much-loved and much-used (even if the recipes are now committed to heart). Her books may be rare gems but much more common are personal collections of torn-out pages of her much-loved Listener food column, as Ginny Grant puts it, “I cannot be alone in having a food-splattered folder of her recipes”.
Every week for more than 20 years in a thoughtful and beautifully written column in the New Zealand Listener magazine, Lois showed New Zealanders how to cook with the seasons and encouraged readers to consciously seek out local ingredients to create the best kind of home food. For many of the years that she wrote her column Lois ran a series of popular cafes and restaurants in Wellington while raising a family. Lois’ multitasking is even more impressive when she tells you that the recipes published in the New Zealand Listener each week weren’t sourced from what was being made in her commercial kitchen, but rather from what she was cooking and eating at home.
As a visitor to Wellington in the 1990s if you asked your hotel concierge, ‘where’s good to eat?’, the answer may have arrived in the form of a taxi to whisk you up to the hilltop overlooking the city and drop you outside the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill. As you sat down in a spacious and light Californian-inspired space, you’d be handed a menu that had been typed up that same day and included a mention of who would be cooking your food in the unusual (for that time) open kitchen clearly in view of restaurant diners.
If you’d arrived at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill on Sunday 3 December 1995 you might have chosen to eat new season artichokes on a platter with smoked mussels from Nelson, or the last of the season’s asparagus tossed with fresh fettucine, capers and mint, or cornmeal pancakes layered with warmed new season tomato, zucchini and grana. And for afters some Oamaru Whitestone cheese or an almond cake layered with passionfruit curd with new season raspberries.
By carefully selecting from what was in season and treating those ingredients gently and with care, Lois and her team at Brooklyn Cafe and Grill created simple and delicious food. As Lois puts it, “I prefer to meddle as little as possible, nudging the ingredients along, and combining them in ways that will bring out their finest attributes”. Lauraine Jacobs recounts a “wonderfully simple but seasonal” lunch served by Lois at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill: “It was spring and Lois offered a huge platter of fresh asparagus, little lamb cutlets, and we had some exceptional strawberries too”.
It is easy from our contemporary vantage point to miss the significance of what Lois was doing at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill. Lois’ approach to food back then is what some of the best contemporary food is now: fresh, simple, local, seasonal. Now commonplace, these approaches to food were not obvious or widespread in New Zealand in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Restaurant food in New Zealand up until the 1980s was predicated on turning food into something from somewhere else or into a status symbol. Eating out was a special occasion event and there was an expectation that it would involve eating rich and luxurious food or incongruous pairings of then fashionable ingredients: banana and bacon-stuffed avocado, anyone?
Lois’ approach was the antithesis to this: her food at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill didn’t involve high status or expensive ingredients, complicated procedures or expensive equipment. It was the kind of food that people liked to make and eat at home; and it turned out to be the kind of food that people wanted to eat at restaurants, too.
Kelda Hains, the co-owner and culinary smarts behind Nikau Cafe, was hugely inspired by Lois Daish during her time working at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill. Kelda cites Lois as the main influence on the way she cooks and she continues to make Lois recipes both at home and at work. Nikau’s legendary kedgeree is based on a Lois Daish recipe and you’ll find Lois’ influence in the cafe’s exemplary baking cabinet in the form of Queen of Sheba cake, blueberry scones, and apricot bretonne.
Marc Weir co-owner of Cuba Street institutions Floriditas and Loretta, also started out at the famous Brooklyn eatery: “I learnt so much from Lois working for her for eight years,” Marc writes, “[yet Lois] always says it was her that learnt so much from me”. Lois’ characteristically humble and generous approach is one of her defining characteristics and those who know her love her for it, however it does go some way to explaining why Lois isn’t the household name of New Zealand cookery that she should be.
Lois has published four cookbooks, but her New Zealand Listener recipes are what she is best-known for and most-cooked from. Many of her columns could be republished as they are today without anyone realising that they are over twenty years old. Lauraine Jacobs observes that Lois was writing about food for the New Zealand Listener at a time when New Zealand was awakening to the possibility of “very, very good food – food that was exciting and new as opposed to the rather boring diet of British food we had all eaten through the 70s and 80s”. For Lauraine and generation of New Zealand food writers and cooks, Lois has been enormously influential.
Cuisine Senior Food Writer and cook Ginny Grant describes Lois’ food as having an “honest simplicity… There are no unnecessary embellishments in her cooking, everything that is in a recipe is there because it is needed.” Lois’ recipe for chicken sauté exemplifies this approach and is a beloved dish for Ginny and for Martin Bosley; Martin recalls enjoying this dish at the Brooklyn Cafe & Grill “Jesus Christ, the best f…king chicken you had in your life – cooked in a frying pan with thyme on top and with the vegetable sides.”
For Lois-loving food writers and chefs, her recipes for zucchini fritters, firehouse chilli beans, and chocolate drenched raspberry cake are frequently mentioned as favourites. These aren’t complicated recipes, but perfected simple ones; once you have Lois’ recipe for tender eggy fritters holding together grated zucchini and crumbled feta, you hardly need another. Ginny Grant writes: “Lois’ recipes are for the everyday cook and I think it’s the simplicity of the food, and clarity of her writing that make her a standout. Perhaps that too is the reason she isn’t celebrated as much as she should be; it’s the chefs with glitz and glamour that get all the attention. I know she is shy and retiring and hates a fuss so I imagine that she couldn’t give a fig about it.”
In an age of celebrity cooks and food writers, it’s refreshing to find someone who wasn’t motivated by fashion or trends or by the lure of the limelight. Lois has stuck to the same underlying principles throughout her lifetime in food be this at home, in her cafes or restaurants or in her writing. She’s an everyday and an every day cook: whether for family, friends, or just for herself, Lois gives the same thought, attention and care to whatever she is cooking to eat that day.