Les Da Chef’s culinary legacy will live on through his creative recipes like these

13 July 2021 - 15:00 By Toni Jaye Singer
The cover of Lesego Semenya's debut cookbook, 'Dijo'.
The cover of Lesego Semenya's debut cookbook, 'Dijo'.
Image: Claire Gunn

Foodies are in mourning for celeb chef Lesego Semenya, who passed away on Monday. He is believed to have died from complications after contracting Covid-19.

Fondly known as Les Da Chef by his legions of fans on social media, Semenya kicked off his career working as a process engineer before switching tracks to pursue his passion for food.

He enrolled at the Prue Leith Chefs Academy in Centurion, graduating with a Grande Diploma in Food and Wine and international-level diplomas in wine and patisserie.

Though classically trained to create fine-dining dishes, the Soweto-born chef was keen to celebrate the food of his childhood and did that in his debut cookbook, Dijo: My Food, My Journey.

Launched in 2018, this best-selling book includes creative recipes that give traditional township meals a contemporary twist. At the time of publication, the Sunday Times lauded Djio for “safeguarding the food heritage of SA’s township” and “sparking an African culinary renaissance”.

Semenya’s legacy of “inspiring South Africans to find themselves through food” will live on through his many innovative recipes.

Here are two from our archives which appear in Dijo: My Food, My Journey:

BUTTERNUT PIE WITH AMARULA CHANTILLY CREAM

Butternut pie, Lesego Semenya's SA spin on a classic American dessert, is one of the recipes featured in 'Dijo: My Food, My Journey'.
Butternut pie, Lesego Semenya's SA spin on a classic American dessert, is one of the recipes featured in 'Dijo: My Food, My Journey'.
Image: Claire Gunn

“Following on from that classic SA trait of borrowing ideas and inspiration, I came up with this butternut pie recipe,” Semenya said of this dish.

“Butternut squash and pumpkin are similar in colour but I find butternut has a more intense flavour and provides a richer colour. It also produces less liquid when cooked (and conversely has more starch), which means less cracking when the pie bakes.

“If you’re new to pumpkin pies and such, it’s a sweet dessert usually served with whipped cream. Some call it America’s national dessert while others would disagree and say apple pie is, but whatever your view, it’s an awesome thing and when made right it is beautifully smooth and looks good on a plate."

Makes: one 25cm pie

Ingredients:

Enough sweet pastry to line a 25cm cake tin

2 egg yolks, beaten

250ml (1 cup) good quality cream cheese

250ml (1 cup) caster sugar

2.5ml (½ tsp) ground cinnamon

Pinch of ground ginger

1 egg, beaten

5ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

500ml (2 cups) cool butternut, mashed

250ml (1 cup) cream

55g melted butter

For the Chantilly cream:

125ml (½ cup) Amarula

250ml (1 cup) double-thick cream

5ml (1 tsp) vanilla essence

Method:

  1. Line the cake tin with the pastry and blind bake it*. 
  2. To make the filling, cream the cream cheese with the sugar until it is softened and free of lumps. Mix in the spices and the beaten egg. Mix in the vanilla extract and the butternut. Whisk until the paste is smooth and free of lumps. Finally, add the cream and melted butter.
  3. Pour into your pie base and bake for 45 to 50 minutes at 170°C. It shouldn’t crack on top. (A sign of a good pumpkin pie is a uniform, smooth surface.) The pie will still look wobbly when done but don’t worry. It will set after resting (just like a baked cheesecake). Leave it in a cool place. (A trick I’ve learnt over the years is to bake the pie for 30 minutes and then, without opening the door, leave the pie in the switched off but still warm oven for a few hours to settle and cool.)
  4. For the Amarula Chantilly cream, simply mix the Amarula liqueur with the double-thick cream and a teaspoon of vanilla. Whip until soft peaks form and add a spoonful to your slice of pie just before serving.

*Chef’s note: Blind baking the pastry beforehand is the most important part of making a tart or open pie. Blind baking is when you roll and line your pie tin and then use foil, ovenproof paper or plastic filled with beans or rice to hold down the pastry. Bake the base until it is golden brown. Remove the foil, paper or plastic with the beans or rice, and then brush the pastry with beaten egg before baking it for a few more minutes. This achieves two things: the base is firm and hard and will not be soggy after baking, and the egg wash will stop the liquid from seeping through any cracks.

Lesego Semenya's recipe for creamed spinach with an African twist features in his cookbook 'Dijo'.
Lesego Semenya's recipe for creamed spinach with an African twist features in his cookbook 'Dijo'.
Image: Claire Gunn

CREAMED SPINACH MY WAY

“I personally don’t understand where the SA obsession with creamed spinach comes from,” said Semenya.

“Thankfully, in the 10 years I’ve been part of this industry, not one client has asked me to make creamed spinach for their function or event. Touch wood!

“I’ve spent some time fiddling with the concept so when I do make creamed spinach this is how I do it. Quick and easy and the nutrients in the spinach aren’t boiled away. The peanut butter is the African twist. We love adding nuts and legumes to dishes.”

Serves: 2 - 4

Ingredients:

200g baby spinach

50g butter

175ml crème fraîche

15ml (1 tbsp) peanut butter

45ml (3 tbsp) grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Method:

  1. Set a pot of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is boiling, place the spinach briefly in the water, just for a few seconds. You just want the leaves to wilt. Drain the spinach through a sieve, and shake off any excess water.
  2. Melt the butter in a pan, stir in the spinach and saute for a minute.
  3. Add the crème fraîche, peanut butter and Parmesan and increase the heat. Once the sauce thickens, season and serve immediately.

Dijo: My Food, My Journey by Lesego Semenya was originally published by Jacana. Earlier this month, Semenya announced on social media that it would be self-published going forward.


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