Sophie Stokes has a smile that lights up a room. It’s as warm and infectious as her laugh.
Her eyes smile, too.
She is a doting wife, mother and grandmother who loves nothing more than cooking for family and friends in her Fern Bay kitchen – but don’t let that fool you.
Stokes is a self-driven, astute business woman of many talents.
She began making a name for herself in culinary circles when she released her first cookbook, In Sofia’s Kitchen: Mediterranean Flavours Down Under, in November 2016.
The self-taught cook has gone on to host regular cooking classes and “pop-up feasts” and is now planning an eight-day tour of Crete, Greece, in September for a group of like-minded food lovers.
Somehow she finds the time to prepare meals for time-poor people or dinner party hosts in over their head, too. All you have to do is order from her online menu and heat the dishes up as required in the comfort of your own kitchen. She will even drop the meals to you, for a fee.
You can choose from savoury delights like creamy chicken pasta, chicken with lemon potatoes and vegetarian moussaka, or sweets including baklava, chocolate beetroot cake with ganache and melomakarona (honey cookies).
Stokes is of Greek and Italian heritage and grew up “eating lots of pasta and Greek salad”. Born and raised in Sydney, she started cooking at the age of seven, baking cakes and Greek sweets for special occasions.
“My mum loved cooking but was never the teaching type. I would watch her and then do it myself,” she tells Weekender.
“My paternal grandmother passed away before I was born and my maternal grandmother lived in Greece. I never had the opportunity to see them in action but my cousins in Greece love to cook and when I travel to spend time with them, we love to pick at a Greek salad all afternoon while we exchange recipes and our love for food.”
Stokes landed her first job while still at school, working in a restaurant as a waitress and kitchen hand. She went on to study a Diploma in Early Childhood Education, a Diploma in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and a Bachelor in Professional Writing and Publishing.
She home-schooled her three daughters, passing on her skills and love of cooking along the way, and worked casually as an early childhood educator.
But her mind was always ticking over. She loved to write and cook, and dreamed of putting together a cookbook filled with recipes she had grown up eating and gone on to cook for her own family.
“I was looking for a new pathway for myself,” Stokes says.
“For years I had lots of people coming over for lunch or dinner and I loved feeding them and they loved eating my food. I started to think that maybe my food would be loved by people beyond my circle of friends, too.
“And so I stepped out and went after my dream.”
The wheels were firmly in motion when the Stokes family moved to Fern Bay in 2010, having rented on the Central Coast while their new home was being built. Stokes was already a published author and was gaining confidence in her ability to share her cooking knowledge with others.
Her first published work was a resource book written for teachers in Fiji.
“I had taken a trip across the Pacific to volunteer in the schools and after running some activities for the teachers, they were inspired to do this ‘new’ way of teaching – interactive learning,” she explains.
“Every school I volunteered in, teachers asked me how to teach the children games, storytelling, craft activities and so on.
“When I returned home, I rolled up my sleeves and put my first book together. It was a fulfilling moment.
“I wrote my first cookbook because I wanted to leave my girls a legacy, in a way. The foods they grew up eating, the foods I grew up eating – I felt it was important for them to remember.”
Stokes can’t choose an all-time favourite dish to cook and eat, but manages to narrow it down to a top five: vegetarian moussaka; pastitsio (pasta bake); baked lamb rissoles and potatoes in tomato passata; Greek village salad; and galaktobureko (custard filo pie).
And she loves to experiment when it comes to food. Her Greek-inspired mousakka pie, for example, won an SBS Food shout-out in December as part of their Bring Back The Classics series. Slow-cooked shredded lamb, sweet eggplants, potatoes and kefalograveria cheese wrapped in pastry. Yum.
“When I cook, I breathe,” Stokes explains.
“I love the process of it, especially when baking or making some sort of dough. I love to get my hands into it and feel the process.
“Raising our girls and educating them at home, we had plenty of time to get in the kitchen and have fun.
“I used to say to them, ‘By the time you are 13 you need to know how to cook a fabulous meal and serve it up to the family’. It’s a Greek thing.
“And when we had big gatherings at our place we would all get in and help prepare the food. It was definitely a family affair.
“Two of our girls are married now and have their own life to live, but we still look forward to gathering for special occasions and cooking together – especially during our Greek Passover celebration.”
Now that her daughters have left the nest, Stokes finds joy in sharing her wisdom and teaching others to cook. Her classes are intimate, enjoyable and hands-on.
“Cooking classes are always fun. People love that I let them do the cooking and not just sit there and watch,” she says.
“I have a few planned this year and I am adding a new kids’ cooking workshop in April which I am very excited about.
“I think the best place to learn the basics of cooking is at home but there are many adults out there that don’t know enough of the basics and therefore are not in a position to teach their children. I think the problem lies in the fact that not many people are cooking from scratch these days due to busy lives and therefore those basic skills are being lost.”
Her number one student, though, is just two years of age and cute as a button.
“I love cooking with my granddaughter and letting her do it herself. The girl can crack an egg like a pro. Often I will set her up beside me when cooking, give her a mixing bowl, a wooden spoon and some cups and flour and just let her play. It’s a wonderful opportunity for her to master her fine and gross motor skills pouring with a cup and mixing with a spoon while balancing on the stool. This girl is going places,” she says, laughing.
“Whenever she visits, she heads to the pantry cupboard where all my aprons hang and insists she put one on. Then she pulls the stool up against the kitchen bench and props herself up on it and is ready to cook with her yiayia.”
Stokes and her husband Greg travelled to Greece last year. It was their first overseas trip without their children in tow.
“When we travel, the only thing we book is our flights and we hire a car – the rest we leave to chance. There have been times where we have wondered if we would get a bed to sleep in but we’ve always come up with the goods,” she says, laughing.
“I love going off the beaten track and discovering places by chance. My husband? Not so much – but this man gets to live an adventure with his Greek wife.”
And yes, this man is also aware of how fortunate he is when it comes to food. Who else is on hand to taste test Stokes’ many culinary creations?
The holiday, though, got Stokes thinking. Could there be a business opportunity in combining her love of food, travel and Greece? Perhaps. And so Active Food Adventures was born.
“We decided to host a trip to Crete because we wanted to show people the authentic Greece – not the tourist Greece,” she says.
“Travelling there first, we were able to connect with family-run businesses that were just as keen as us to show people the real Greek culture. The itinerary we have put together is unique and one of a kind. Filled with cooking workshops, wine tours, honey tours – it’s off the tourist track and a tour I believe will be enjoyed by people looking to experience the real thing.
“And for once we have pre-booked everything, so no worries there.”
With so many pots on the boil, 2018 is looking like being a busy year. But Stokes wouldn’t have it any other way.
She is hosting My Big Fat Mediterranean Feast on April 14; Kids Rock in the Kitchen on April 18; a private feast on April 28 and a Rustic Cooking Workshop: Baking French on May 5.
And that’s just the first six months.
Stokes has a regular blog on her website which covers anything and everything, not just cooking, and she also plans to upload recipes in the coming months for people to try at home (insofiaskitchen.com.au).
“Being a person who always likes to look on the bright side of life, I’m hoping for great things in 2018,” she says.
“I am looking forward to our pop-up dinners continuing to be as successful as our first one last October. Hospitality is at the centre of all Greek homes and I am loving inviting people into my home, people I have never met, and having them gather around my table and share with them my love for food and my love for cooking.
“I am also heading over to Italy to one of the most renowned places in Europe for the best wine and I will be doing my research for a possible foodie tour in 2019. This tour will be like our Crete tour, filled with authentic and unique experiences.
“I am also looking at some local destinations for a foodie tour and that’s still in the early stages of planning. My hope is that 2018 will be a fulfilling year of discovering new places, experiencing new ideas and meeting lots of fascinating people.”