Thousands of kilometres separate South Africa from Belgium. But South African Kobus Van der Merwe, chef of Wolfgat and Belgian Willem Hiele, chef of the restaurant by the same name in Belgium have something that connects them to each other. It was therefore no wonder that Alexandra Sweden, who brought them together and introduced them through social media, termed them ‘Brothers from another sea’.
Until a few months ago, the two chefs had not met despite a similar passion for the sea and ocean, for the people of their territory and their approach to cooking.
Willem visited Kobus on a holiday earlier this year and there was instant chemistry.
On Saturday, they cooked together for the first time at Willem Hiele’s restaurant in the Flemish seaside resort Koksijde. Kobus, whose restaurant, Wolfgat was recently awarded as ‘Restaurant of the Year’ and ‘Off-Map destination’ restaurant at the World Restaurant awards came to Belgium together with Margot Janse, a chef whose made a name for herself in South Africa becoming the first female chef to feature in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. None of his team joined him for this occasion though I was told they would be catching a plane for the first ever time to go to Taste of London being organised this week.
Together, Willem and Kobus crafted a menu from scratch. Until 48 hours before the event they had absolutely no idea what they would cook to the extent that Willem’s wife Shannon had to order many different bottles of wine to be able to have a selection when she had to choose the wines to pair with the dishes.
That menu was inspired by their exchanges and it was inspired by seasonal and local produce from Willem’s garden as well as discoveries from the foraging which they did together. That’s another commonality between the two chefs. While many use ‘foraging’ as a buzzword, the two chefs put foraging at the centre of their cooking and are inspired by what they find around them.
Most of the menu was created in the new ‘outdoor kitchen’. Here is he able to smoke, grill and work with fire, something which comes natural to the two chefs. It was their playground for the afternoon.
Shannon served the first taste of the day under the apple tree where she and Willem got married five years earlier. She served apple juice made from apples from their garden with a selection of herbs from their garden which she picked up earlier in the day.
The guests, including among others Peter Goossens, chef of Belgian three Michelin star restaurant Hof Van Cleve were led to a tent where they could take shelter from the sun. A number of snacks were served here as the two chefs recreated their terroir on a table. Willem served different declinations of carrots from his garden, they served herring in red (with beetroot) and morago with limpet. They also served oxalis with raw shrimps picked from the North Sea and then served two different types of oysters, one cooked and one with fermented wild asparagus. Kobus made a seaweed waffle and served it with an eel cream and snails to accompany the oysters.
From here we headed to the outdoor kitchen where Kobus served a South African bread with butter and fish prepared the bokkum way. A delicious way to prepare the palate for the lunch.
In the house by the sea, Kobus and Willem presented a tartare of sea bass with geranium and pelargonium. This was followed by mussels and kohlrabi with potatoes and a mussel broth. Smoked mussels accompanied this excellent dish.
What followed was ‘Goat Peas’ a ravioli stuffed with goat’s cheese and served with fresh peas from the garden and ‘pancetta’ made by Willem.
We moved back to the garden where Willem served the birth of a new leek. The Belgian chef lets the leeks growing in the garden fully grow until they flower. Inside the large leek is a new leek that he removes from the leek that has been cooked on the fire. He served it with a mousseline sauce and herbs from the garden.
It was time to head back for the restaurant for the ‘sosatie’, monkfish cooked and served with curry, harissa, butternut and a yogurt cream. This was followed by a ‘wagyu’ deer served with a puree of dates.
The dessert was ‘simplicity’ at its best with Willem using seasonal raspberries together with rhubarb and dune rose that were accompanied by a strawberry sorbet.
The first leg of the ‘Two Brothers from Another Sea’ produced by Alexandra Swenden was a success. She said “I’m delighted that this project, which could have remained a simple exchange of words, has taken root. In turn, each will come and explore each other’s territory and together they improvised and created an as yet unchartered experience.”
Willem welcomed everyone and said it was a real honour to have Kobus cooking in Belgium.
On his part, Kobus said he was delighted to be in Belgium on a beautiful ‘South African summer day’ and enter Willem’s magical world that he created in his beautiful property. “We met in Paternoster a few months ago and it was a perfect match because there are so many similarities that can be drawn between our to places in different corners of the world. Our cooking styles have a similar ethos and philosophy. I am really looking forward to Willem returning the favour and coming to cook in South Africa.”
The next leg of this magical encounter will take place in December.