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Nici Wickes: An afternoon with my hero

Meeting her baking idol is a treat for this celebrity chef.

Having heroes is one thing. Being able to meet them is another. So when the chance arose to spend some time with Lois Daish, one of my all-time food idols, I jumped at it.

Well-known for the Wellington restaurants she owned in the ‘80s (Number 9 on Bowen St, Mount Cook Café, and the Brooklyn Café & Grill), the mother-of-four was also the food editor and columnist for The Listener for 23 years until 2009 when she retired.

Sometimes there were recipes, other times she devoted her column inches to imparting delicious wisdom about aspects of food that made up our food culture. At 75, Lois has given so much to the Kiwi culinary landscape and meeting her was to be a dream come true.

Nici and Lois’ recipes both appear in a new NZ-made baking cookbook.

But these things are never straightforward.

I’d made some lovely little lemon cakes, iced carefully with a light cream cheese frosting. And as luck would have it when you’re trying to impress someone, they got upturned in transit.

Standing on her doorstep in Wellington – where she lives with her partner Mike – I debated whether or not to present my less-than-perfect baking attempt to someone so accomplished. I had nothing to fear – at my knock, the door was flung open and Lois’ warm greeting put me at ease.

We settled in her garden with a cup of tea. I was keen to find out what continues to inspire Lois, meal by meal.

“I always view eating as a way that divides the day up into manageable pieces” Lois begins. “Though I think about food a lot, I’m not very good at imagining something from nothing. I can’t conceptualise a meal. I need to start with something. For example, I have some beautiful knobbly tomatoes at the moment and they will give me my starting point; we’ll have them on toast first, then I might turn them into some sauce, which I can then serve with braised lamb or with pasta perhaps. I’ll see that sauce as a resource for a few meal ideas.”

She’s a practical cook and as a restauranteur set out to “make the best home-cooked food, delivered in a smart café or restaurant environment”. Lois had blackboard menus before most others and always cooked for the season.

She still prepares three meals a day and for her, it’s not a chore.

“There’s something nourishing in cooking at home and to keep doing it for yourself is really the only way you can have control over what goes into your body!”

She describes the act of cooking as a dance – how there’s a rhythm and steps to be learned and practised – and we both laugh when admitting that others in our kitchen space can interrupt the grace of the dance. They get in the way!

Lois and I have contributed (along with 60 other Kiwi cooks and chefs) to The Great New Zealand Baking Book, a collection of Kiwi baking favourites and a follow-on from The Great New Zealand Cookbook.

While I was delighted to be included alongside food greats – Simon Wright (The French Café), Julie Le Clerc and Peta Mathias to name a few – when I received my copy of the book, it was discovering that mere pages separated me from Lois Daish that thrilled me most.

Her decision to submit a recipe for an almond cake was an inspired choice.

“I wanted to provide an example of a good, sound, no-nonsense cake – the kind that needs very little adorning and isn’t fussy to make. There’s something satisfying about the older recipes where the key ingredients of butter, sugar and flour are used in near equal measures. These are real cakes to me. My mother would often say that a decent cake can be a meal in itself. After all, it has plenty of protein from the almond and eggs, and sufficient fat and carbohydrate from the butter and flour.”

When it was time for lunch, we took her words to heart with a second cup of tea and a thick slice of freshly baked almond loaf cake.

They say that food tastes best when enjoyed in the company of others. Well, on this occasion, I felt as though I was eating the best-tasting cake of my life, second only to the wonderful company.

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