I met Camphors at Vergelegen Chef Michael Cooke at the AMEX Platinum Fine Dining Awards at Boschendal for the first time last week, and was impressed by what a friendly young man he is, and his cooking career history to date. When Barbara Lenhard and Florian Gast from Opulent Living and Chefs who Share invited me join them for lunch at Camphors on Sunday I accepted immediately.
Paying an entrance fee at the Vergelegen entrance boom is still odd to me, and the boom man did not explain what the money is used for, I vaguely remembering that it is to cover looking at their gardens. The car park at Camphors was reasonably empty, as was the restaurant terrace initially, where we were all seated, it being a beautiful sunny day. Our table overlooked the green lawn, surrounded by a collection of palm trees, oak trees, the camphor trees dating back to the 1700s being elsewhere on the estate. I loved the sound of the river hidden by the trees; and seeing the peacocks wandering past our table.
I last ate at Camphors just after it opened almost four years ago, when the kitchen was run by Chef PJ Vadas, and Christo Deyzel was the Manager and Sommelier from the beginning. When Chef PJ left to open The Hoghouse at Ndabeni and then at Spier, Chef Michael moved across from La Colombe two years ago, at a time when the restaurant was moving from Constantia Uitsig to Silvermist at Hout Bay. Chef Michael told us that he lightened the menu when he arrived, Chef PJ having a heavier meat hand, his passion.
Chef Michael’s career path has included Haute Cabriere, Grande Provence, Greenhouse, a stage at the Fat Duck at Bray in the UK, and then La Colombe, and now Camphors at Vergelegen, where he seems really comfortable, having a massive estate to harvest vegetables, herbs, and flowers from, and from which he can obtain cuts of Nguni beef, which is supplied to fellow restaurant Stables too.
Our waitress Pamela brought a bread basket of nut and seed loaf, a biltong-spiced braai-broodjie, and rosemary scones, beautifully presented red wine butter topped with grape salt and thyme, as well as brown butter with cream cheese and topped with malt crumble. She also talked us through the a la carte menu, explaining each dish in detail, the menu only detailing some of the ingredients, an impressive achievement given the number of ingredients.
An unannounced Amuse Bouche arrived soon thereafter, which Christo called a Cheese and Wine Snack, beautifully presented in a light black metal dish with legs, placed upon a wooden board, not being completely stable. It consisted of a pastry pillow filled with a Pecorino cheese sauce, red wine mayonnaise, cheese beignet, Stanford cheese puffs, toasted cheese powder, and a brandy snap filled with Huguenot Cheese Catalan topped with port caviar.
Hot towels scented with camphor oil, linking to the camphor trees on the estate, and the origin of the restaurant name, were brought to the table.
Christo came to explain their unique approach to the wine pairing, Camphors starting with the Vergelegen wine, and Chef Michael and his team then creating a dish that matches the wine. Given the drinking-and-driving concern, Christo has found three Vergelegen wines to pair with almost every dish, in smaller tasting quantities of 75ml per glass. He said that they ‘work from wine to food‘.
Barbara and Florian ordered different dishes, so that they could taste each other’s food. I decided to leave my food course choices in the hands of Chef Michael, finding it too difficult to choose dishes. The a la carte Spring Harvest Menu is charged at R395 for three courses and R450 for four courses. The ten-course Tour Tasting Menu costs R650 without wines, and R900 with the wine pairing. The menu has green lines on the left hand side, and each dish is typed within different lines, to depict the degree to which its flavours are ‘light & delicate‘ and ‘full & richer’.
Pamela told us that Chef Michael changes one or two dishes at a time, not making radical changes to the menus. The menus are contained in a classy black leather holder with the Vergelegen name embossed on the front cover. Fish of the day was kob on Sunday.
Barbara ordered the Cauliflower cold starter, a dish which came with variations of the vegetable, beef, tahini, Earl Grey, and a vinaigrette, which Christo had paired with Vergelegen Reserve Chardonnay 2014, which he described as being creamy and rich, with a partial malolactic fermentation.
We noted that the dishes on which the food was served were made by a mix of ceramicists, including Mervyn Gers and Diana Ferreira, but others too.
Florian’s first cold starter was a variation of carrots, served with roast chicken jus, mustard, and the interesting addition of the Greek dessert baklava!
Chef Michael chose a ‘risotto’ made of oxidized green sunflower seeds, served with Jerusalem artichoke, confit butternut, poached quince, quince butter, butternut purée, artichoke crisps, sunflower shoots and petals for my first cold starter.
Christo told us that the restaurant philosophy is ‘Vineyard-to-Table’, in its unique approach in designing dishes to suit the Vergelegen wines. He does not serve white wines ice cold, offering them at 10-11ºC.
Barbara declined a hot starter. Florian ordered the smoked and charred farmed trout, and trout tartare, which was served with umeboshi plum slices and gel, white daikon, black garlic aioli, puffed wild rice, trout eggs, and coconut dressing. The dish was paired with Vergelegen GVB (grown, vinified, and bottled) White 2013.
The outside tables have a smoky black glass top, and comfortable black chairs. No condiments are on the table, nor flowers, just a side plate with a good quality linen napkin, and a black woven place mat and cutlery.
My warm starter was the most beautifully presented salad of garden herbs and sprouts (including onion sprouts, peas, mange tout, cabbage sprouts, green beans, carrot tops, fennel sprigs, pea shoots, alfalfa, dressed in a parsley oil), served on a base of chestnut custard, a smoked hen’s egg yolk, with pickled shallots, chestnut shavings, sprinkles of cured egg yolk, fennel pollen, and lavender and rosemary flowers.
Florian and I both were served the slow-braised free-range pork fillet main course, glazed in an Asian barbecue sauce, with pork loin wrapped in homemade pancetta, ham velouté, pork puffs, pork jus, green cabbage, pickled red cabbage, Savoy cabbage, and parsnip purée. The pairings were with Vergelegen Roussanne/Sauvignon Blanc 2013, GVB White 2013, Grenache 2013, and Shiraz Premium 2012.
Barbara and Florian told me that Chef Michael contacted them last year, to ask how he could get involved with Chefs who Share, Barbara admitting that she was moved to tears by his kind offer. It was the first time that Chef Michael and Barbara met each other on Sunday.
Barbara ordered Karoo lamb, with crumbed sweetbreads, gremolata, pumpkin, and Harissa (a hot chili pepper paste made with red peppers, garlic, chili peppers, coriander, saffron, and olive oil). It was paired with Vergelegen Cabernet Franc 2012.
We were served the Milk and Honey pre-dessert, with a cold honey mead Kombucha, as well as burnt milk ice cream, honey custard, dehydrated milk foam, yoghurt foam, honeycomb, yoghurt crumble, and bergamot (a citrus fruit) gel. Mead is an alcoholic beverage, and the honey mead had been made by Chef Michael, having been fermented for nine months. We were assured that it has been diluted down to an alcohol level of 3-4 %.
Christo told us that he started at Camphors when it opened four years ago, when it still was a building site, having previously been the Lady Phillips Restaurant. He studied at the Cape Wine Academy, and also in the USA. He learnt a lot about wine from Singita sommelier Francois Rautenbach whilst working at the game reserve. From there he moved to Indochine at Delaire Graff.
Florian and I both enjoyed the popcorn dessert, which was served with caramelised white chocolate Cremeux, sweetcorn custard, popcorn ice cream, caramel powder, caramel popcorn, dehydrated chocolate mousse, corn husk meringue, and shoots of the Mielie plant, a new dessert recently added to the menu.
Barbara ordered the apricot dessert, which contained popping candy, pecan nuts, and basil. I had fun photographing Florian photographing Barbara’s dish!
The Bon-bons are titled ‘Tobacco, Brandy, Wine’: there are ‘adult’ wine gums, made from red and white Vergelegen wines, KWV 10-year-old Brandy-infused financiers, and tobacco-infused caramel chocolate truffles, a representation of the typical end of a dinner, and linking back to the Brandy snap in the Amuse Bouche. Pamela brought the chocolates to the table in a cigar box, and placed them on the plate with the other petit fours.
The Tour Tasting Menu reflects the produce from the Vergelegen property, ‘capturing an exciting range of flavours, textures and aromas‘. It starts with a cheese and wine dish, followed by the Green sunflower cold starter from the Spring Harvest menu. Then a seafood potjie, and braised springbok dishes follow. Ice wine appears to be a palate cleanser. Dishes of forest floor flavours, Karoo lamb, and the pre-dessert we enjoyed on the Spring Menu follow. A stone fruit dessert is followed by the same petit fours we were offered.
I found a leaflet about a special ‘Origins: Elements’ dinner which will be offered at Camphors on Friday 30 September, ‘a menu that embodies a sense of place – paying homage to the ORIGINS from where we SOURCE our produce…‘. It costs R650 for five courses, including the wine pairings.
The highlight was having Chef Michael sit down at our table, and chatting about his forthcoming marriage, and about Chefs who Share, organized by Barbara and Florian. He is one of the twelve chefs cooking for it. He is ‘paired’ with Chef Chris Erasmus of Foliage, and Carl Habel as the Sommelier. Chefs who Share will be held in Johannesburg for the first time this year, on 24 September, the bulk of the local chefs flying in from Cape Town, and the balance being international chefs. Christo joined Barbara and Florian for a photograph.
Chef Michael told us that he ‘loves to play with the food’, and with its flavours and textures in particular. His small chef team of four is learning about produce, in not picking it too early or too late, the just-ripe produce having an aroma and perfume which one cannot get from bought vegetables, fruit, and herbs. They use everything they harvest, and waste nothing, he told us. He described his as a ‘teaching kitchen‘, and expects his staff to ‘leave better than they arrived‘. They must become good all-rounders, and not specialist in pastry or cold kitchen, for example. Despite having done a stage in the UK himself, he says that there is no need for young chefs to go overseas to learn, as the local kitchens here are good.
He has good relationships with chef ‘colleagues’, and says that there is enough room for everyone in the industry. They share ideas and principles, and it raises the game for all. He has counted eight competitive Winelands restaurants in his vicinity, and it places pressure on him and his team to perform even better.
Camphors at Vergelegen does not blow its PR trumpet, but does have the PR company Meropa Communications doing the Vergelegen PR. Judy Bryant from the communication company was very efficient in sending me additional information which I had requested from Chef Michael.
We were the last to leave, our lunch visit having been a five-hour one, a reflection of how much we enjoyed the afternoon in the tranquil surroundings, the excellent food, good wines, and interaction with Christo and Chef Michael. There is no doubt that Camphors at Vergelegen will be on the Eat Out Top 20 Restaurant list again,