Chef's Kitchen: PJ Vadas

Chef's Kitchen: PJ Vadas

“I’ve got my knives and my uniform and I can start now.”

It takes more than a little courage to walk up to the back door of Gordon Ramsay’s flagship London restaurant and present yourself with just 12 simple words, but for Peter John – ‘PJ’ – Vadas it was a step he’d long looked forward to.

Fresh from a stint at Roger Vergé’s famous restaurant Moulin de Mougins – “an incredible experience; I learnt a lot about how to run a kitchen” – he headed for London to fulfil a long-held dream to work for Gordon Ramsay.

“So they let me work for a day and then offered me a job. A week later I started,” remembers Vadas, a cheerful Knysna-local who’s quick with a laugh and doesn’t seem to take life too seriously. Sitting in one of the svelte dining rooms of his new winelands restaurant, Camphors at Vergelegen, he looks like a man happily shifting down a gear.

It’s all a far cry from the fast-paced world of Ramsay kitchens: after proving his mettle in Chelsea Vadas moved to the newly opened eatery at The Connaught Hotel to work with super-chef Angela Hartnett. 

“I worked with Angela for two years and that was an amazing time. We worked extremely hard, often 18 hours a day, but I was getting a great education at the same time. Neil Ferguson, the head chef, took me under his wing and got me doing all the basics right.”

Between stints in kitchens back home he returned to the Ramsay fold, opening Gordon Ramsay’s first restaurant in New York, and working his way up from commis to Executive Sous Chef. 

“I was just the guy who lasted the longest!” laughs a typically humble PJ, and although he was snapped up for a position at Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred Per Se, it was visa issues that eventually saw him booking a flight home. 

Red tape’s loss was South Africa’s gain, and with PJ in the kitchen The Roundhouse – with a dramatic position on the slopes of Table Mountain – quickly became one of South Africa’s top fine dining destinations. 

So why leave behind an award-winning restaurant to start a new one, I wondered?

“It was just time for a change,” says Vadas. “I’d been there for four years and had become the managing director, doing everything from human resources to ordering the gas. I’d lost what I loved doing most, which was being in the kitchen.”

Getting back into the kitchen was just one of the perks of opening a brand-new fine dining restaurant on the historic Vergelegen Estate outside Somerset West in the Cape winelands. 

The smaller restaurant, just 60-seats, and slower pace allows PJ more space for mentoring young chefs; a part of the job he takes seriously. 

“I’ve been very lucky to always have a good mentor in every kitchen I’ve worked in: Michael [Olivier] was awesome at Park’s, Angela and Neil were great at The Connaught. I love growing people, teaching and watching them improve. We’re always training as we go along, and I think if a junior chef does something wrong you need to be asking yourself if you showed them how to do it properly?”

And doing things properly is something PJ takes very seriously indeed, starting with the simple building blocks of using great produce. The Camphors menu focuses on “delicious flavoursome food”, and while the dishes are artfully plated and full of complex flavours, there’s a disarming simplicity to every plate.

“Cooking great food with restraint and good produce is often harder than whipping up complicated dishes, because there’s nowhere to hide. If your products aren’t outstanding the whole dish is ruined,” explains PJ. 

“We’re trying to stick to classical influences, to match the classical wines of the estate, and while the dishes are pretty straightforward there are lots of surprises. So the steak tartare is served with a smoked bone marrow and avocado coriander purée and a really awesome potato chip. We’re looking for layers of texture and flavour.” 

At its heart, PJ’s style of cooking at Camphors is about giving ingredients the respect they deserve: “I don’t see the point of taking amazing buffalo mozzarella and blending or foaming it. So much time and effort has gone into the produce, we try and let that speak for itself.”

With such an emphasis on ingredients, it’s no surprise that he has wasted little time in tracking down some of the best producers in and around Vergelegen.

“We source our trout from Lourensford, we get cheese from Healey’s across the road, olives from Morgenster next door, bread from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch, Buffalo Ridge cheese from Wellington and herbs from Steve Botha in Porterville. They’re all suppliers that have become good friends.” 

Using ethically raised produce is also a non-negotiable for Vadas, who sources pasture-reared chicken and grass-fed beef from farmer Angus McIntosh on the Spier estate. If he can’t get it it; it’s not on the menu.

“If I was doing a big hotel it’d perhaps be more difficult, but for a small restaurant like this we can make that choice,” explains Vadas. “Our menu can change daily if needed, so it allows us to be flexible around what’s fresh and available.”

And true to Vergelegen’s 300-year-old farming heritage, the estate gardens under the watchful eye of horticulturist Richard Arm offer a steady stream of fresh greens. 

But PJ is an adventurous chef at heart, and isn’t one to let his diners stick to tried and trusted favourites. 

“Because the menu changes so regularly there isn’t really a signature dish, but there are signature ingredients. And there’s always a risky dish or two on the menu. You can’t play it safe all the time!” laughs PJ. “There definitely needs to be a balance between dishes that will comfort and challenge diners, and I find many guests are actually quite adventurous.”

Offal, sweetbreads and tongue are all regular features on the menu at Camphors, and getting them right comes down to one simple rule, says PJ: “You have to source your ingredients carefully. If the offal is not good quality the dish will be terrible, so we spend a lot of time buying the best offal we can find.”

It’s clear Vadas pours time, energy and passion into every facet of the dining experience, and I wonder whether he has his eye on an award or two to hang above the sleek wine-bar that graces the entrance of Camphors. 

“It’s always nice to get recognition, but one thing I learnt from The Roundhouse is that you can’t cook for the awards; you have to cook for yourself. Make sure your team is happy, and you believe in what you’re cooking. Then the other things just come on their own,” says Vadas. 

“A guest said to me the other day, ‘By your food I can see you really love what you do.’ And for me that’s all the recognition I need.”

Camphors At Vergelegen, Lourensford Road, Somerset West. 021 847 1346. 

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First Published: 2013-02-28 Food & Home Entertaining

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.