Kobus van der Merwe – Eat Out’s reigning S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year – is the name on every foodie’s lips at the moment. The Wolfgat chef, who clinched the titles of Restaurant of the Year and best Off-Map Destination restaurant at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards on 18 February, is back on SA soil after his whirlwind trip to Paris. We sneak a few moments with the chef before lunch service.
How are you feeling after your big win?
We’re all extremely excited and hugely honoured. It came as a massive surprise, because we really didn’t think we stood any chance looking at the competition. They’re restaurants that we’ve been following for a long time that are making international waves and operating on an extremely high level. We just didn’t expect it.
How did the team and community react?
The team were so proud and actually the whole community is buzzing. On Thursday when I arrived back in Paternoster we had a group of school children and moms singing for us. The response has been so overwhelming.
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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
What messages do you have for your team?
I am so proud of them; it’s an incredible achievement. I think the fact that we’re competing with international chefs on a really high level is really something.
What will change for you after this recognition?
The only thing I’m hoping that will change is that our bookings will roll over into winter, which are our quieter months. But other than that, nothing will change. We’ll carry on doing what we’re doing and continue to evolve our menu because that’s why we were recognised in the first place.
It seems you opened Wolfgat to get away from it all; now ‘it all’ is coming to you. How do you feel about that?
We’ve managed to maintain a great work-life balance. We’re only one team that does everything and we have only two double shifts in a week, so we still deem our family time very important. As far as restaurant life goes, we still have it pretty decent.
What’s the one thing about foraging indigenous ingredients that you wish everyone knew, and how can others do it responsibly?
It’s important to realise what amazing indigenous bounty we have. But I want to stress that it’s not encouraged to start picking in the wild because we obviously don’t have the abundance that we used to. At the restaurant we do pick things in the wild, but this is always done with the landowner’s permission; some of the produce just grows like weeds on the old farmlands. Awareness is great and you need to have an inner sense towards the environment, and pick with conscience and with a conservationist mindset. You can also easily plant these ingredients in your garden – you can buy them from the indigenous section in your nursery. I just really love that there’s a renewed interest in foraging.
You obviously rely heavily on nature and your surroundings for your cooking. What challenges does that bring?
Weather is definitely a huge challenge, specifically on the West Coast, which is a water-stressed area. The summer menu is always the most challenging because we have less availability of the indigenous produce, which is also why we also pickle and bottle things in winter when they’re abundant.
What’s your current favourite ingredient?
Hmm…I would say laver (laverbread), which is a type of seaweed we collect from the local rockpools. It’s in the same family as nori, which is used in sushi. It’s extremely versatile, really flavourful and comforting, and can be paired with meat and seafood. Currently we’re serving it with a seared oyster at Wolfgat.
It feels like we opened Wolfgat yesterday, so the West Coast is still our muse and we continue to grow, innovate, explore and discover. We deliberately try to not follow any trends, which can be so fickle and short-lived. We want the ingredients to shine and keeping the combinations simple but interesting. We want to continue challenging guests in an interesting way with textures and tastes and lighting new pathways in the brain.
And lastly, how was your first service after getting back?
[Laughing] It was interesting! It was a jam-packed service and I felt like I hit the ground running. But all went smoothly and there was such a nice buzz in the restaurant after all the guests had heard the news and were so excited and happy for us. I flew back with two magnums of Laurent-Perrier Champagne, so we had a good supply of bubbly to celebrate.
Want to know more about Kobus’s restaurant? Read the review of Wolfgat. Been there already, and want to boast? Write your own review on the Eat Out app.