Go back a few years and Kobus van der Merwe would have probably been sitting close to me for an event like the World Restaurant Awards organised in Paris on Monday 18 February. Instead he walked out of the auditorium of the Palais Broignart head held high to the tune of Toto’s 1980s hit song Africa as he clinched the first ever Restaurant of the Year award.
The lyrics of the song with the ‘drums echoing tonight’ and ‘blessing the rains down in Africa’ never felt more apt.
A former journalist and food writer, he was writing about the global restaurant scene and dealing with restaurants every day until he was 30 when one day he started to feel his real calling. He wanted to be on the other side of things and not just writing about restaurants. He had no idea how to enter that world because he never worked as a chef before and only had one year of culinary school training to vouch for which he had acquired just after high school many years back.
He found an opening in 2009 when his parents decided to move to Paternoster, 140 kilometres away from Cape Town to retire. They bought a legendary shop in the village. He decided it was time to take the plunge, quit his office job and moved there to help them for a year and see what happened.
He had no plan, no vision and by no stretch of imagination did he ever believe that he would be taking home the Restaurant of the Year award even as he was taking the flight to Paris. He was already humbled and pleased to just be there, having made the shortlist of the Off Map Destination award.
“Being in this room with some of the people I admire is already an honour for me,” he said the first time he stood on the podium. He was lost for words when he was called again a second time to receive the Restaurant of the Year award.
Kobus, the owner and chef of Wolfgat, the restaurant has no hierarchy and the staff are mainly women with no formal training in the kitchen. He does not consider himself to be their boss and prefers his team to call him a colleague.
“I would not have it any other way,” he says about his mostly female team. “It is cool. The kitchen at Wolfgat is designed to be very unindustrial. I never wanted to have a hot, sweaty, dark kitchen where it is physical hard work. We love what we do and it is a very light and happy kitchen. I love walking into the kitchen in the morning and finding the team singing while they are working. I don’t know what it would be like to work with men but for me it is definitely perfect as it is. Without gender stereotyping I think that the kitchen has a different energy to it because it is an all female team,” Kobus told Food and Wine Gazette.
When Kobus finished high school he went to culinary school but he was not prepared for it. “I was not ready, I was not mature enough to know what to expect.” He loved fine arts and music, his favourite subjects at school so culinary school was never his first choice. After that first year he decided to travel and during a two year period in the UK doing odd jobs here and there to raise pocket money he thought it would be a good idea to follow a media studies course and to be able to write about all the things he was passionate about from food to arts and music.
That was exactly what he did when he returned back to South Africa. “I started freelancing for the Afrikaans daily newspaper doing classical music reviews which I really enjoyed. I would go to concerts, got stacks of classical CDs to review. I built a really nice collection. Eventually I landed at a start-up travel company and I did the copywriting for their website and learned HTML and then from there saw a position at Eat Out magazine which is South Africa’s restaurant annual directory. it was a perfect fit for me because I had online experience and also a food background.”
It grew and developed and as I immersed myself into that landscape, I got completely carried away.
“I never dreamt of having Wolfgat, it has been a very gradual process. When I arrived in Paternoster, there was a small tea-garden at the back of the shop. I started to revamp that.” On a chalkboard he would write five dishes every day which he would serve in a very informal setting. “From the beginning I thought that everybody else in the village was offering fish and chips kind of food which is fine but is not representative of the region or the produce we have.”
His focus therefore was to bring something new to the village. “It grew and developed and as I immersed myself into that landscape, I got completely carried away,” he said.
As a food writer following the international scene, Kobus knew that storytelling was an extremely important element of food and dining in a restaurant. “I was seeing what was happening internationally and how in South Africa we were missing the point as we were using imported ingredients and considering them as superior. Anything exotic got the thumbs up when we had so many local and indigenous products that we were ignoring or had forgotten about. ” he said.
He recalls the salted dried fish which people turned their back too. “This was considered to be poor man’s food and I was adamant to have those things on the menu. It was from here that it grew and we are still on this ongoing journey.”
“We are just at the beginning in South Africa, we are only starting to tell our story now. We are in an interesting situation in South Africa because we have 11 official languages, diverse backgrounds. We do not have a South African cuisine because it is almost impossible to define. For me, the way to try and reach that goal was to first start hyper local, only tell the story of Paternoster region and the west coast in terms of ingredients, history and heritage food.”
Working from his parent’s back room he built a reputation for himself. “The experience at the shop was very interesting because it was an existing space that we had to retro fit. It had lots of character and for the guests it was interesting because they walked through a farm store and come out into a back and would eat a meal including a tasting menu rather than a sandwich or pie. In a very informal setting we were serving serious food. I loved it and was very happy but in the back of my mind, I knew that it would be great to have a blank canvas where we could start from scratch and design the whole experience the way we wanted to.”
Two and a half years ago, Kobus heard that the Wolfgat location was available and that was when the restaurant was born. It overlooks a beach and is housed in an old fisherman’s cottage dating back 130 years. It seats only 20 diners at a time.
Today, days after Wolfgat was named restaurant of the year, the restaurant, 140 kilometres away from Cape Town is fully booked for the next three months.
“Paternoster is a small community traditionally made up of fishermen. The village was struggling as fish species are dwindling and the government is not looking after small fishermen instead giving quotas to large fishing companies. People are really struggling to make a living from what they traditionally relied on so for me it is important to employ people from that village,” Kobus said.
My team are all born and raised here. They are mostly women whose fathers or brothers are all fishermen. They started working in the restaurant without a culinary background, without any training and we all learn from each other.
He feels a responsibility towards helping the community. Today Paternoster has become a tourist spot and that is set to change even more as the small fishing village becomes known around the world for Wolfgat. “It is amazing to see the change. My team are all born and raised here. They are mostly women whose fathers or brothers are all fishermen. We buy the fish from them. They started working in the restaurant without a culinary background, without any training and we all learn from each other. I am only one who has a bit of a culinary school background but they have this amazing knowledge of the region, the flavours, the fish and the connection to the landscape. We feel like a little family with no hierarchy in the kitchen and there is no distinction between front and back of house. Every person has a responsibility for picking or gathering something in the morning that they will cook with and end up serving in a dish,” Kobus said.
There is a bit of seniority in the kitchen in that some of the team have more experience than others but there is no hierarchy. “When the menu changes, the role changes. We also have people who adapt certain skills naturally. For example, we have Emily Williams who is really good with pastry. She has a natural touch. Our only other male member is amazing at doing all the tedious seaweed picking, washing and making crisps. There is no rigid structure, the staff teach each other so we have a back up but it is a very laissez-faire approach,” he said.
Kobus takes a very local approach when it comes to foraging. “For us, local is really local.” The South African chef does not like to use the term foraging however. “It has become a bit of a buzzword and the trend. It has been made famous by restaurants like Noma but we do not like to label it this way because the word has lost its original meaning and impact. In a city, every second restaurant has ‘foraged’ ingredients on the menu and often they have picked ingredients from the garden. That’s not the point for us. What is important is for us to capture the essence of our region. The fact that we pick wild things and collect food from the rock pools surrounding the restaurant is because we want to represent our region and not follow any trend,” he said.
He tells me this aspect is extremely important for him and his team. “When we go and pick ingredients we are acutely aware of the season, the landscape, what is happening and the weather. When you pick things daily, you can see things changing. It sharpens your senses to the environment. We have a dramatic transformation between summer and winter and it can happen very quickly. At the moment we are at the peak of the dry season. You can be collecting one thing today, have two days of 30 degrees and within two days, everything is gone so we will have to adapt the menu,” he said.
Kobus said this is a challenge but it also helps stimulate creativity because it makes you think on your feet. “We have regular guests who may come twice or three times in a season and I would apologise because the menu would be the same but they would say it was completely different the previous time. The menu would have evolved without us realising we had tweaked it so much,” he said.
The summer menu is the longest one and it is the one which least relies on wild picked elements because there is not a lot of diversity in terms of the produce so they pickle, dry, ferment or preserve ingredients that can be used.
Winter, i.e. June, July and August are the best months for him because it is a bit like spring in Paternoster and that is when he recommends you visit the region. When the first rain arrives, nature wakes up, everything starts to flower, grow or sprout and there is an abundance of things to pick.
As a restaurant that works mainly with fish, Kobus has seen an evolution over the past few years.
“We are very aware of how pressured resources are. We rely a lot more on seaweed, that are sustainable, grow quickly and impart a sea flavour without the need to use fish or ‘seafood’. Fortunately we have amazing aquaculture in Sondana bay which is just 20 to 30 minutes from the restaurant. The oysters and mussels from here are amazing and it is something we always have at the restaurant. But fish is not in abundance, fish stocks are under pressure, there are quotas, legislation and corruption to deal with,” he said.
Originally Paternoster was known for its crayfish but today this is endangered with just 2 per cent of its capacity left. “This is devastating for a small local community and we do not serve it for the time being. It is a challenge,” he says and this is one of the reasons why he keeps the number of covers low at just 20 per service.
Kobus’ restaurant is often referred to as the ‘noma’ of South Africa though he is humble enough to say that there can be no comparison. He never expected to win to the extent that his first thought when I spoke to him after the award ceremony was to say that he wished his team was with him to experience the night. But he is now hoping to have more clients for winter which is the best season for the restaurant and also important for tourism in the area. With South Africa now in focus, that dream is likely to materialise sooner rather than later.
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The most heartwarming welcome back after a whirlwind trip to Paris: song and dance by St Augustine primary school and members of the Paternoster community. So incredibly special. Thank you. #Wolfgat #Paternoster #worldrestaurantawards #offmapdestination @worldrestawards #disnwolfgatding