Mothers and traditions are the key inspirations for many foodies, and it's the ability to experiment and make old ways relevant today that makes for exciting conversation and eating.
In the early 90s, Maia du Plessis started her career in food in New York as a stylist in the advertising industry. Growing up in an environment where great food was part of her culture, it became the most natural extension of self to share that with others. Maia surrounded herself with friends who were passionate about food, prepping and cooking in their lofty apartment, and one of them was Richard Melville Hall (also known as Moby), on cue to provide the score to heady times. Today, Maia's kitchen studio in Woodstock is aptly called Provisions — a curated store of good food, good times and art.
What are your earliest memories of food? We grew up with a Greek mother and she cooked quite traditionally, so my sister and I ate quite differently from our friends. They were eating hot dogs and fish fingers while we had stuffed vine leaves and lamb.
When did you decide to become a chef? After university, I travelled and worked in advertising and fell into styling, then more specifically food styling, and I've always lived with people who were passionate about food. We cooked together and were lucky enough to live in quite a big space — by New York standards. Our friends would come to us for suppers on the weekend. One of my closest friends at that time, who is half Filipino and half French, studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York and we were very fortunate guinea pigs. If I've got a dinner, I still WhatsApp him for ideas and recipes. After I had children, I started to do recipe development and menu consultation, primarily for Hartenberg Wine Estate. My friend, Peter from Society Bistro, had a relationship with the estate and said they needed some help on their look, brand and food. Then I started doing my own catering, which led to opening Provisions kitchen studio. It's just a beautiful intimate space, which takes some of the stress out of hosting dinner parties. My husband, Otto, runs the Bronze Age foundry, so it's great to also have the art and artists connecting with others.
What have you made for us? Seared scallops with cauliflower pur.e and a raisin-caper vinaigrette, and a Greek galaktoboureko made with a flaky pastry and semolina filling.
Why scallops? It's a recipe from a pivotal food moment in my life. In New York, I was able to eat out at the best restaurants with chefs I admired because at lunchtimes during the summer, they'd have bargain meals. The scallops by Jean-Georges Vongerichten blew my mind. It's a bit of a 90s dish, but I carry it forward.
How would you describe your style of cooking? I would say 80% intuitive and the rest is sporadic research, because I love collecting books. It's Mediterranean in origin and then with having children, cooking at home is very much a Ready, Steady, Cook situation — open the fridge and cupboards and see what's there. In my studio, it has to be a lot more formal, but I do change the menu according to how I feel.
450g phyllo pastry
Zest of 1 lemon
A cinnamon stick (optional)
2 tbsp honey
4 eggs, separated
2 tsp vanilla extract
A knob of butter
To make the syrup, put sugar, water, lemon zest and cinnamon stick in a pan and bring to the boil.
Simmer for about five minutes, until the sugar has dissolved, then remove pan from heat. Add honey and stir. Set aside to cool completely.
Place egg whites and 50g sugar in a mixing bowl (make sure your egg whites, bowl and whisk attachment are free of any water). Use an electric mixer/beater to whisk until thick and glossy.
In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and 50g of sugar together until the mixture is thick and foamy.
Using a spatula, add one quarter of the egg-white mixture into the egg-yolk mixture. Gradually add all the egg-white mixture into the egg-yolk mixture and blend.
Pour milk, cream and the rest of the sugar into a saucepan, bring to the boil, then slowly add semolina and vanilla extract. Turn the heat down to medium and whisk constantly until the mixture becomes creamy. Remove pan from heat, add a knob of butter and blend.
Blend the two mixtures together, stirring occasionally to keep the custard from forming a skin.
Melt butter and line the bottom and sides of a tin. One by one, layer the tin with four phyllo sheets, ensuring half of each sheet falls outside of the tin (with one sheet in the middle) and that each sheet is thoroughly sprinkled with melted butter.
Tip in the custard, smoothing the surface with a spatula, and fold the phyllo-sheet flaps over the custard. Add four more sheets on top, sprinkling each sheet with melted butter. Optional: trim off the excess phyllo with a knife and roll the rest on the edges.
Brush the top with enough butter and scar with a sharp knife. Preheat oven to 160°C and bake for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes until phyllo is crisp and golden.
Slowly ladle cold syrup over pastry and wait for each ladle of syrup to be absorbed, which helps preserve the dessert. Serve after the syrup is absorbed. (Store it out of the fridge for up to four days.)
SEARED SCALLOPS WITH CAULIFLOWER PURÉE AND RAISIN-CAPER VINAIGRETTE
⅓ cup capers, drained
¼ cup golden raisins
¾ cup water
10 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp sherry vinegar
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste
½ head of cauliflower
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste
In a small saucepan, combine capers, raisins and water. Simmer over moderately low heat for 10 to 15 minutes until the raisins are plump — do not boil. Transfer to a blender and purée. While blender is still on, add butter one tablespoon at a time until properly mixed. Add sherry vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
To make the cauliflower purée, remove cauliflower stalks and cut cauliflower into small pieces. Heat butter and milk in a pan and cook cauliflower until softened. Strain and liquidise, then season and pass through a fine sieve. Keep warm.
Score the scallops and sear until cooked but translucent in the middle.
To serve, arrange the scallops on a bed of cauliflower purée with the vinaigrette on the side.
This is an extract from Cooked in South Africa, an initiative of Wish Upon A Star, a non-profit fund-raising charity (Reg. No 2013/038478/08). The book is about memories and journeys around food and will be on sale in leading bookstores with all profits from the sales going to children living with disability. Photographs courtesy of Felix Seuffert and Cooked in South Africa.