Michael is the Executive Chef at Camphors Restaurant at Vergelegen Wine Estate – recently awarded ‘Plate’ status in the newly launched JHP Gourmet Guide as well as achieving the highest status of 3 Stars in the 2016 Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide, and one of the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Award nominees for 2015.
Chef Michael Cooke studied at the prestigious Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) in Stellenbosch and has worked at many famous kitchens prior to getting the Executive Chef nod at Vergelegen, some of which include: The Restaurant at Grande Provence, Greenhouse at Cellars-Hohenort, The Fat Duck (UK) and the acclaimed La Colombe at Constantia Uitsig (which has now relocated to Silvermist Wine Estate).
We interviewed this talented chef and find out some more unique information about him…
Source Food (SF): Favourite ingredient to work with?
Michael Cooke (MC):
Tough question! Right now – Jerusalem Artichokes. We’re taking great advantage of their very short season at the moment! We’re also playing around with a variety of roots and shoots right now too.
(SF): Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and why?
(MC): Probably Tokyo – great food and a very special culture. It’s a very diverse city, but their standards are consistently exceptionally high with everything they do, and their culture is a very generous and gracious one.
(SF): Person you would most like to cook for?
(MC): My father.
(SF): Best cooking advice for a beginner just getting into the business?
(MC): Approach every task with new focus – no matter how boring or trivial it might seem at the time, there’s an opportunity to learn and it takes repetition to master a technique. Question everything – every great dish begins with a question, and sometimes the journey getting there is just as important as the dish’s creation. Lastly, taste everything!
(SF): What’s the strangest thing you have ever cooked?
(MC): Breakfast for dinner maybe?
Sometimes I’ll cook with unfamiliar or uncommon ingredients, but there’s a tremendous amount of research that goes into it beforehand, so by the time we’ve started working with it, it can be as familiar to us as an onion. At the end of the day, you’ve got to remember that guests have got to eat it – so it can’t be anything so strange that it’s bordering on unappealing…
(SF): What was the first dish that you cooked that made you realise your passion for the industry?
(MC): It was a Terrine that I used to make when I worked for Peter Tempelhoff at Grande Provence. He was very strict about how it was made – right down to the smallest detail. A Terrine is a very technical thing to make because so much can go wrong in each element of it, but this particular one was something else! It had to be set overnight, so if it went wrong you would only know the next day when you needed it. I loved making it – if the following day was my day off, I would come in to work just to cut that first slice so I could examine the layers of it. I thrived under that level of attention to detail in food – it made me want to strive to a higher standard, and shaped the way I approached my work.
(SF): If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living?
(MC): Possibly something in Marketing or Advertising – it would have to be something where creativity is central to the job.
(SF): What is your signature dish?
(MC): I don’t have one – I hate “signature” dishes. They limit you in a lot of ways, and stunt your personal growth and the progression of the menu. Seasons change, and with that, so do ingredients and their flavours. Ingredients don’t taste the same throughout the year, and a signature dish forces you into using these out-of-season ingredients for the sake of keeping true to what is on your signature dish, but it’s dishonest because it doesn’t taste as it should. The dish becomes “forced” because you need it to work, regardless of how it now tastes. It’s impossible to keep that dish tasting the same throughout the year (unless your ingredients come from a box or a can!), so you’ve ultimately failed on delivering consistency.