ON A PERFECT PATERNOSTER DAY, WHEN THE CAPE DOCTOR CATCHES HIS BREATH BEHIND A DUNE, THE SUN DANCES ON THE BRIGHT BLUE EXPANSE, THE LONGEST BEACH STRETCHING OUT IN ONE WHITE LINE… IT IS IN THIS PARADISE YOU’LL FIND WOLFGAT – NATURE PAINTING THE BACKDROP, FAUNA AND FLORA THE MENU
By Richard Holmes
Photographs by Bruce Tuck
Artisan? Seasonal? Local produce? Kobus van der Merwe doesn’t like buzzwords. “They have become completely meaningless,” says this talented Paternoster chef, who would rather let his kitchen do the talking.
Last night (18 February 2019), the inaugural restaurant of the year awards were held in Paris which awarded some of the world’s best chefs and restaurants for their role in the global restaurant industry.
Wolfgat, where Kobus van der Merwe heads up the kitchen, took the most honourable spot of world’s Restaurant of the Year as well as the winner in the Off-Map Destination category.
Over the past five years Kobus has redefined the concept of West Coast cuisine from Paternoster’s quaint corner store known as Oep ve Koep, his tiny kitchen turning out groundbreaking dishes inspired by wild ingredients foraged from the surrounding veld and coastline. It’s little wonder he has no time for buzzwords.
While his five years at Oep ve Koep allowed the softly spoken chef to slowly refine and polish his culinary philosophy of cooking with indigenous West Coast produce, in late 2016 he rolled up his knives and moved to a new space. Wolfgat was born.
“Oep ve Koep was unplanned and grew organically, but I’ve always liked the idea of having a blank canvas to work with,” explains Kobus. “I’d always thought that if and when the right place came along, at the right time, the next chapter could begin.”
That place was a century-old fisherman’s cottage on a hill overlooking the beach at Paternoster. All whitewashed walls and shaded stoep, a previous renovation by a local architect had
The blend of modernity and tradition on the plate is reflected in the décor of this historic cottage. An industrial steel table doubles as the pass, the only element separating the inside tables from the compact kitchen. Jars of pickles line the shelves, while dried herbs hang from the rafters. Although the dishes being plated may be precise and carefully executed, there’s a relaxed and homely feel to the space – both indoors and out on the sheltered terrace.
While Oep ve Koep remains in the family and the garden restaurant there still dishes up a pared-down menu of West Coast dishes, the move to a larger location has allowed Kobus to rethink his approach in the kitchen: “The concept of cooking Strandveld cuisine continues, but with renewed focus. Because I could create the whole experience from scratch, it’s all more considered,” Kobus sets out.
For, dining at Wolfgat is more of an event than a mere meal. Firstly, there’s no à la carte offering, but rather a multi-course set menu of whatever happens to be in season and freshly foraged that morning.
“We design it as seven courses, but it often stretches to nine or 10,” smiles Kobus. “But they’re small bites, devised in such a way that you don’t have to taste all the elements of Strandveld cooking in one dish alone.
“I like being able to simplify the plates, so that the entire menu is a bigger composition made up of smaller parts. The overall experience is meant to give you a taste of what we feel represents the indigenous ingredients of the wild West Coast.”
That could mean local limpets deliciously done in garlic and white wine or perhaps a poached oyster atop bean purée with local veldkool. Wolfgat is one of the few local restaurants certified to serve sustainably farmed abalone from nearby Jacobsbaai and I loved his innovative “West Coast taco”, using a fleshy soutslaai leaf from the field to embrace perfectly cured angelfish.
“I cook very intuitively with whatever I find in my immediate surrounds,” explains Kobus. It also makes reservations essential, as the Wolfgat kitchen only collects and prepares precisely what’s needed for the day’s service. “We cook by appointment, so that we don’t forage anything that might go to waste.”
While relying on foraged foods and hyper-local seasonal produce would make many chefs tremble in their kitchen Crocs, Kobus thrives on the challenge. “Cooking from wild ingredients means you’re at the mercy of the elements and whatever is happening out in the veld. It’s limiting in a way, but makes you appreciate it when you have things at your disposal,” he stresses. “It’s challenging, but I do find that it makes you more creative in the kitchen. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
A good example is the local seaweed used increasingly at Wolfgat. With the ongoing drought affecting what can be found in the field, Kobus has made a deliberate effort to cook with the seaweed abundant along the West Coast. “It’s nutritious, undiscovered and unappreciated!” enthuses Kobus, who raves about klipkombers – from the same family as Japanese nori – for its silky texture and umami-packed flavour.
The focus on indigenous produce has also seen Kobus delve into the rich cultural traditions of the West Coast. While the cookbooks of celebrated author C. Louis Leipoldt are a major influence, many of the items on the current menu have been inspired by the work of Renata Coetzee, an expert on traditional food cultures.
“I’m finding the early histories really inspiring at the moment and Renata’s research into Khoi culture and how they lived off the land is fantastic. Every time I open one of her books, I discover some inspiration – it sparks my imagination for new dishes.”
With an ever-changing menu in a gorgeous location, it’s clear there’s no shortage of West Coast imagination on offer at Wolfgat.
10 SAMPSON STREET, PATERNOSTER; WOLFGAT.CO.ZA