Story of a Plate: Sunflower Seed “Risotto” at Camphors

On the menu: Green sunflower, sunchoke, butternut, quince

One of the highlights of a recent visit was an intriguing play on risotto that used sunflower seeds instead of rice. How did you come up with that, and were you intending for it to be “risotto-like”?  

Chef Michael Cooke: Yes, we were, and it took roughly nine months of development to create this dish. To give a bit of background, we keep a diary of everything that’s available on the Vergelegen property; we document the season, the exact time of the year each ingredient is available, and the timeline that it’s available for. We do this to keep ahead of the seasons, and to be on track for when something becomes available, so when it is, we’re ready to use it immediately when it’s at its peak, and not waste any valuable time as the timeline of that ingredient slowly withers away.

Sunchokes are also know as Jerusalem artichokes, correct?  

Michael: Exactly.* We’d been doing some experiments in the kitchen on the effects of alkalis and acids on ingredients, and how they tenderise certain products. When sunchokes come into season, a lot of chefs scramble to get them onto their menus, because they’re quite a prized ingredient, so I wanted to ensure that we did something really special, unique and though-provoking that would let the sunchoke be the hero of the plate. The idea was to create a dish that celebrates and tells the story of the ingredient in its entirety, with zero waste.

We began by going back to the experiments we’d been working on, and treated the sunflower seeds by manipulating them with acid and alkali, and exposing them to oxygen. This produces a remarkable effect on the colour of the seeds, similarly to when copper turns green after long exposure to oxygen.

Like patina on buildings and rooftops?

Michael: Yes, precisely! So we treated the sunflower seeds in the same sort of way, and then worked on different variations of the sunchokes, like caramelising them whole, puréeing them, and making them into thin crisps. We thought about the best way to combine everything in a way that would be approachable to guests, and packed with as much flavour as possible, and settled on incorporating all components in the style of a risotto, using sunflower seeds instead of the traditional Arborio rice. We started similarly to a traditional risotto, with sweated shallots and garlic, slowly feeding the seeds vegetable stock; we then folded through caramelised sunchokes and purée, finishing it with parmesan and a bit of cream cheese, and finally garnished it with sunchoke crisps, micro sunflower shoots, and sunflower petals.

But it still needed something more, like a bit of subtle sweetness, so we added some poached and preserved quinces to the garnish, and a butternut component, because I’ve always liked the combination of butternut and quince. What we found was that we had created a dish that showcased the entire sunflower plant in a beautiful and most unique way. It was immediately a smash hit with our guests, so much so that we were going through sunchokes at a crazy rate. The next problem that we had was that we then had to work out how to ensure longevity of these ingredients so that guests could experience the dish for a more prolonged period on the menu, basically working beyond that short window of season.

The caramelised sunchokes preserved extremely well, but because of their strong flavour, we needed fresh sunchokes as well. We then found that if we kept the sunchokes in soil, and manipulated the soil temperature and environment, it essentially tricked the sunchoke into thinking it was in a particular season, and ensured that we had fresh sunchokes for longer.

Very innovative!

Michael: Yes – there’s a lot of science that goes into food! We filled the boxes with soil and planted the sunchokes, evenly spaced and layered, and then moved them between our fridge, storage spaces, and outside, depending on where the most ambient temperature would be.

In paying homage to a special ingredient and where it comes from, the dish has subsequently become central to telling our story. I’m so incredibly proud of its creation, and I always refer to it as an example of what we pride ourselves in doing here at the restaurant, using one ingredient like the sunflower, and breaking it down into its different components.

How long at has the dish been on the menu?

Michael: Nearly two years. But we’ve sadly just taken it off recently, for a short window until the sunchokes come back, since we depleted our stocks, not realising how popular the dish would be. It’s one of those things that guests hear about and ask for, and while I don’t like having a signature dish – it can handcuff you as a chef to be known for one particular dish – this is one that a lot of people want to see and taste.

Like all restaurants, you face significant challenges with the current drought, and especially as you perhaps rely more on rain since you grow so much of your own produce. How are finding ways around it?

Michael: It’s always been important for us to be a sustainable restaurant, with a fine-tuned moral compass, and the right ethics when it comes to sourcing produce. Besides what we grow on the estate (as much as we can!), we regularly conduct farm visits to check on how things are grown, and are in constant communication on the ground with our employees here, and also our suppliers. We began this journey a couple of years ago – we wanted total transparency in terms of knowing and showcasing where are our products come from, who’s growing them, how employees are treated, and what water they’re using. It’s almost like running another restaurant on top of the current one because of the amount of time that it requires.

But because of our commitment to being an ethical, sustainable restaurant, we’ve brought that project into our restaurant too, so now we’ve got our own grey water system. We’re lucky to have dams on the property which we filter for all the water that runs through the taps – we don’t rely on any municipal water whatsoever. We use the filtered water to make ice for the restaurant, which at the end of service we bring back into to the kitchen to use for cooking. That cooking water is then used for watering the garden, washing the floors, or scrubbing the drains. It’s a big project (one of many), but my team and I are enjoying the challenge!

The final dish, consisting of green sunflower seed risotto, poached quince, butternut purée, sunchoke crisps, sunflower shoots, and sunflower petals. (Image courtesy of Michael Cooke)

Where to get it (in a few weeks’ time): Camphors at Vergelegen, Lourensford Rd., Somerset West. 021 847 2100.

*While chef Michael could confirm that sunchokes and Jerusalem artichokes are indeed the same vegetable, we needed to turn to Wikipedia for an explanation of Jerusalem in the alternative name, which is apparently contested, but may be a derivation of “girasole” – the Italian for sunflower.