Last week I shot in Chef PJ Vadas’s kitchen for the second time, and I was struck again by what a cool chef he is. I was there to work. He was already working there. Yet we struck up a conversation about food and the hospitality game, and how season affects Winelands restaurants, and we almost forgot to do any work at all. PJ is easy like that. He loves food in all it’s forms and is curious about it and people who work with it – even photographers.
And it is PJ, he doesn’t allow anyone to call him Chef – finds it too stuffy. This doesn’t mean his kitchen is a riot either. On the contrary, it’s a well-oiled machine where everyone just gets on with what they have to do. No shouting, no histrionics. If you consider that PJ spent a significant amount of time working with Gordon Fucking Ramsay, you’d expect his kitchen to be a bit of a ‘yelly’, ‘sweary’ one, but it’s a calm place with a decidedly chilled atmosphere. All the elves of kitchenland are totally focused on their work, but they do it with a smile and a joke. When they got a walk-in for lunch while I was shooting, the volume didn’t go up, it actually went down. Everyone just got down to what they had to do and started sending out dishes.
Everyone has their role, taking responsibility for a particular dish or course. The degree of skill and technique is a major element in the cuisine of Camphors, and so is presentation. Nothing is simply tossed here. You find chefs staring intently at a plate just inches from their eyes as they carefully place a sliver of radish or an almond blossom from the tree outside. Everything is precise, and checked against PJ’s mental list of aesthetic appeal, ethics and sustainability, but most of all that of sensory pleasure. The dishes are creations that deliver on taste, but cleverly conceal impish nuances in texture and variations from traditional practices.
This intensity is carried through to the sourcing of ingredients and selection of suppliers too. While I was shooting – well, chatting really – the pork supplier, Phillip, arrived to drop off a fresh porker and some charcuterie his wife had made. PJ was straight out to greet him and have a look over the new arrival. While they inspected the traditionally farmed pig, he fired questions about weight, grading, feeding and so forth. When Phillip handed over a little joint of cured meat, PJ’s eyes lit up and he couldn’t wait to say his goodbyes so he could get at it with a little paring knife.
A delightful air-cured culatello is currently the featured charcuterie at Camphors and PJ is experimenting both with ways to use that and with new candidates to feature. My conversation with him obviously turned to the matter of cured meats and he was very happy to share Phillip’s contact details for fresh pork and those of his wife Michelle as a source of excellent cured cuts.
Something that I found a little disappointing while I was making images with the team, was that customers were not beating down the doors demanding food. Perhaps Vergelegen is a little out of the way for a Winter lunch, but people should flock when it is of this quality. The property is magnificent, there are plenty of things to engage even the fussiest visitor, and you get to sit down in a spectacular restaurant and eat PJ’s food. Of course, I’d rather be in the kitchen chatting with the chef, but lunch in the restaurant would be a fairly close second – especially if I could eat that Springbok fillet again.