Chef Michael Cooke shares his views on sustainability and why he’s leaving Camphors at Vergelegen

Chef Michael Cooke has been the executive chef at Camphors since 2014 and has contributed immensely to the restaurant’s great reputation with his sustainable approach to leadership and food. He is now leaving Camphors to pursue other personal ambitions.

A two-time winner of the Eat Out Woolworths Sustainability Award, Michael is also celebrated for his creativity on a plate which is more authentic than pretentious. He has built an illustrious career having amassed experience working in famous kitchens locally and abroad. These include Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Restaurant in the UK, Cape Town’s La Colombe restaurant and Greenhouse restaurant in Constantia.

As he prepares to step down from his role at Camphors, he took some time to reflect on his present, the evolution of sustainability and what the future holds.

At what stage of growth do you find yourself now in your life and career?

I’ve reached a point where I feel that I need to step back a bit, have some reflection, observe a bit more, and then assess where I want to go from here in my career. It feels like a bit of a crossroads where I’m at. I think that’s been predominantly due to a lot of burnout as a result of the impact of the last few years and what our industry has been through. I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s been mental warfare. And honestly, it’s long overdue that I shift more focus to my personal growth, upliftment and experiences in my life to ensure longevity in my chosen industry.

Sustainability is on our minds. But you’ve always been its front runner (and won awards for it) before it became such a necessary part of our collective consciousness. Where does that awareness come from?

It started very early on and I’ve had that approach and belief throughout my career. In my experience of some incredible kitchens, the need for total perfection to achieve success and accolades was not limited to only the restaurant and kitchen, even the product wasn’t spared scrutiny for not looking pretty enough to be worthy of the cooking. I saw so much produce being discarded for not looking like it’s “supposed” to. For being too big, too small, too gnarly, too round and it was that kind of discrimination that had the most lasting impact. That, and the amount of by-product created for cutting the “perfect” shape. It was all money and produce thrown in the bin. It felt like a massive crime on food. The opportunity to show the right example on a larger platform came when I had to manage my own kitchen and team. That gave me the vessel to express myself, my principles and my creativity, and to give a voice to being conscious about the decisions that we make, and their short and long term impact. Up to then, restaurants and retail were pretty negligent in a lot of ways, and nobody was taking any responsibility. The momentum shifted very quickly as the consumer became more aware and educated, and that has been the pressure that was needed to force these industries to change. It’s always been about transparency, honesty and respect for the ingredients and the creations, but the same three guiding principles have also been true with people too – whether that’s colleagues, suppliers, farmers and growers, clientele or anybody else that we engage with.

Does the meaning of sustainability evolve? What does it mean to you?
Sustainability most definitely evolves, and we’re only just scraping the surface of how broad sustainability is. When people talk about sustainability it always relates to a product – a fruit or a vegetable, meats, seafood etc. or the sourcing of that product. But sustainability is so much more than just the product. When we talk about sustainability at the restaurant, we speak about the sustainability of our colleagues too, and how we can best manage things like career growth, mental health, investing in one another, creating support systems, encouraging learning opportunities – ways to ensure we sustain positive forward-thinking and care for one another and the growth of our careers. It’s about leaving things in a better place than you found them – and that can be applied to almost everything that you put your mind to.

What lessons around sustainability can you share with the industry from a food and chef’s perspective?
Looking inwards and into your operation is the most obvious and best place to start. Shine a spotlight into every corner and scrutinize the decisions that you’ve been making so far, and ask yourself if they’re necessary or wise. When you put what you’re doing under a microscope and have an honest conversation with yourself you’ll realise how many of the choices that you’ve made have been unnecessary, unwise, unfair and purely wasteful.

What have been some revelations of your creativity with food?

  • Ugly can still be delicious – if you put flavour above trying to be pretty and pretentious the dish will take a natural authenticity of its own.
  • Having an arsenal of good techniques at your disposal allows you to be more creative – knowledge and accuracy are fundamentals to good cooking and give you the confidence to create.
  • It’s food – it must be nourishing and delicious first and above all else. Being a work of art or trying to be too clever is not a crucial step to be adding to your process – that’s just ego.
  • Creativity can’t be forced – it should come naturally from being in a positive frame of mind to allow for thoughts and ideas to flow freely.

What inspires that creativity for you?

I take a lot of inspiration from natural shapes and forms, and I like to keep things “organic” for how they were intended to be seen and experienced. A vast majority of my creativity also comes from what is happening in particular environments where a product might be found and trying to convey a message of that time and place. I get very inspired from discussions with my team as well – when they’re working on an idea and trying to pursue the process it gives me a lot of creativity through problem-solving conversations that we share.

What is the next phase of your journey?

From a professional phase, I’m not sure where my culinary journey and exploration will take me, but the theme of sustainability will continue to be part of that journey. I have been fortunate to have been approached with many different projects and opportunities for restaurants and media, but for the immediate future, I’m not considering anything just yet. On a personal level, I’m going to be taking a break from the industry for now and will look to explore new opportunities again when the time is right.

What do you take with you into the next chapter?

My leadership has grown a lot, and I’ve developed patience in how I go about approaching my work and home life balance. I feel that I have gained a very important understanding of the fundamentals of business and good practices that support and nurture the growth of positive relationships with people. My role has been multi-faceted, and it’s been a lot of learning along the way which I’m so grateful to have experienced. With Camphors Restaurant closing (to be revamped and renamed at a later date), it felt right that the chapter of the restaurant ended with my chapter too – which in a way, felt symbolic to me because we’ve been one and the same for so long and achieved so much together.




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