19 February 2019

World Restaurant Awards (New York)

South Africa: Restaurant of the Year: Wolfgat

Photo: @worldrestawards/Twitter
Wolfgat's Kobus van der Merwe accepts his award in Paris.
press release

A South African restaurant has won two awards in the inaugural World Restaurant Awards.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

If mother nature erected a sign saying 'build restaurant here', it would surely point to Wolfgat. Chosen from all the inspected big plates, our inaugural Restaurant of the Year is a small, remote haven of purity and good taste in every sense.

The unanimous choice of our inspection panel is a picturesque oceanside dining room on South Africa's Western Cape. With our inspectors spread across multiple time zones and continents, the intense discussions to decide the winner from all of the inspected 'Big Plates' took place over a long weekend in a very 2019 fashion: via a flurry of FaceTime calls and an impassioned WhatsApp group.

Even without looking at the pictures of Wolfgat – the whitewashed cottage, the golden sand – our inspectors' report makes you want to book a flight to Cape Town and drive on up the coast to Paternoster in a hurry: “The place is super simple, rustic yet perfectly elegant. We sat by the fireplace. The restaurant is directly on the beach with an ocean view. We could watch the fishermen go out, come back and empty the catch from their brightly coloured boats. The village of Paternoster is stucco white, like somewhere in Greece, charming and not touristy. Essentially, it's a dream of perfect balance, unspoilt charm and accessibility. You know that feeling you get when you feel that you are among the first people to discover a place?”

Wolfgat is very much driven by its chef-owner and catering college dropout Kobus van der Merwe. “I didn't complete my course [because I was] determined not to end up cooking in an industrial hotel kitchen,” he explains. “I dropped out and went travelling.” He eventually came home and ended up working as an online journalist for South African publication Eat Out, but in 2010 he left that job and Cape Town behind to run his parents' country store in Paternoster.

He also helped out with their restaurant, Oep ve Koep, which at the time had a short menu of mostly fish and chips. Kobus gradually changed the menu and wrote on the blackboard outside: “Hyper-local, considered, heritage, slow, seasonal Strandveld food served here.”

In early 2017 he stepped back from Oep ve Koep to open Wolfgat and pursue his vision. A collaboration with the botanist Rupert Koopman on the cookbook Strandveld Food helped increase his knowledge of the veld, its wild plants and the coastal bounty of seaweed, which today inform his style of cooking. That style is seasonal, inspired by the weather, with a naturalist approach and minimum intervention, so that the ingredients – especially the wild and the foraged – come into their own.

It feels like a restaurant that's giving back to the community. All of its team are locals, many of them from fishing families, have never worked in a restaurant before and have trained on the job. Kobus is a believer in doing away with the traditional hierarchy of kitchen and front of house. The restaurant is very much a team effort and there is only one team.

He also comes across as someone who understands the importance of work-life balance and says of Wolfgat, “By keeping it small, we keep it sustainable.”Don't expect the 20 or so diners they take each sitting to increase any time soon.

OFF-MAP DESTINATION

Wolfgat has won the Off-Map Destination category, for remote restaurants where the journey to get there is a story.

Although only a couple of hours drive north of Cape Town, on South Africa's Western Cape, the sleepy fishing village of Paternoster, famous for its lobster, feels like another world. It's home to Wolfgat, named after a famous cave of geographical and archaeological significance, that lies beneath the premises.

It's a restaurant of idyllic rustic dreams, an intimate 20-seat dining room with an ocean view, housed in a converted 130-year-old whitewashed fisherman's beach cottage, the likes of which are dotted along the western coast, brightly painted boats outside providing the occasional sun-bleached splash of colour.

The South Atlantic doesn't just provide a pretty view and the soothing soundtrack of surf crashing. Kobus van der Merwe, Wolfgat's chef and driving force, builds much of his menu – an exercise in the hyperlocal, perfectly balanced between creativity and accessibility – around local fresh catch and dresses his dishes with wild herbs and seaweeds, which he forages from the dunes and rockpools along the shore.

He describes his seasonal, seven-course tasting menus as 'Strandveld food', after the region, and makes a point of listing wild ingredients and those that grow wild in his garden under each dish description in italics. A plate of fat 'Saldanha Bay mussels, Tjokka (Afrikaans for squid), cauliflower, wild garlic, masala and sambals', for example, is supplemented by 'Tulbaghia violacea', a flowering plant also known as society garlic.

They also keep things local on the wine list, with a selection of Strandveld's finest.

The World Restaurant Awards were created by IMG in partnership with Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini to celebrate restaurants as culture, considered in the same way as film, art and music. That means relevant/progressive categories judged with robust integrity by an expert panel in an attempt to better reflect the true range and diversity of the international restaurant scene: from fine dining innovators to humble, accessible establishments; major culinary capitals to more remote destinations.

IMG is a leading events, media, fashion and sports company, operating in more than 30 countries. The company owns, operates or commercially represents more than 800 events around the world, including the Taste platform and other flagship culinary properties such as Margaret River Gourmet Escape and The Big Feastival.

IMG is part of the Endeavor network. Named one of Fortune's 25 Most Important Private Companies, Endeavor is a world leading entertainment business with the unrivalled capability to create and distribute some of the world's most watched content.

Endeavor is comprised of a number of industry-leading companies including: WME, Frieze, UFC, Droga5, Miss Universe Organisation and The Wall Group, among many others.

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