As winner of Restaurant of the Year in the inaugural2019, Lynette Botha heads to the off-route restaurant to see what all the fuss is about…
You will probably circle Sampson Street a few times before noticing the inconspicuous Wolfgat sign. The unassuming, tiny white building blends in seamlessly with the same-same houses surrounding it.
After setting off for Paternoster from Cape Town at 6am, and with no caffeine yet pulsing through my body, I am feeling a little worse for wear when chef Kobus van der Merwe opens the door to his award-winning eatery.
Keeping It Small
Kobus seems to be a man of few words. Shy? Reserved? Busy? All three, I think.
It is barely 9am and already there are knocks on the door – service only starts at 12.30, but hopeful visitors plead for a spot for lunch. Over the course of the six hours I spend at Wolfgat, this probably happens at least 10 more times.
Kobus is consistent in his reply to all the seekers: gracious, but straight. Unfortunately, there is no space – the restaurant is fully booked until the end of June (it is early April at time of writing).
And these reservations have nothing to do with the recent accolade of Restaurant of the Year in the inaugural.
No, Wolfgat has been pleasing palates with its seasonal seven-course tasting menu since 2016, and because there is only a maximum of 20 diners per seating, space is very limited. “We keep it small so that we can keep it sustainable,” is Kobus’ philosophy.
Sustainability is Key
Sustainability is key in everything that Kobus does – from the responsibly sourced seafood that has full traceability to the foraged indigenous botanicals and seaweed that his Strandveld menu has become known for.
“I source most of the foraged ingredients within a 6-kilometre radius of here. Most of the plants are weedy-type leaves and succulents that grow in abundance and that people would normally remove from their gardens, like dune spinach, sout slaai, samphire…” he explains.
“I work very closely with a botanist from Cape Nature, and a network of people around here, so we have a constant exchange of information.”
I am distracted for a moment as I look out at the view. In complete contrast to the front of the building that seems to conceal everything within, the balcony has uninterrupted views of the beach below.
Local fishermen prep their weathered wooden boats for a day trawling at sea while the village children play boisterously in the sand, and stray dogs scrounge for scraps, performing a forage of their own accord.
Setting the Record Straight
I am brought back to the present by the whizzing of a blender in the little open-plan kitchen and question Kobus about his recent award.
“It is the biggest honour, a dream. To be selected by industry heavy weights and professional peers just means so much,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.
The industry honchoes he is referring to, include Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, David Chang of Momofuku, and René Redzepi of Noma, to name a few, who handpicked Wolfgat as the winner of the biggest award of the night.
But there is something that Kobus would like to set straight.
“I want people to know that we are not the ‘world’s best restaurant’ or the ‘number-one restaurant in the world’, as previously misreported by some press. We won Restaurant of the Year, yes, but the criteria involved is very important,” he says with purpose.
“It is the overall ethos of Wolfgat – the sustainability, the fact that we employ mostly women, that we support the local community, that we upskill, that there is no hierarchy in the kitchen – all of these things are what set us apart and helped us to win this award for an off-route destination.”
He continues, “I just don’t want to set anyone up for disappointment. We shouldn’t be compared with Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants, because that is not what we are about. We are just a simple, laid-back restaurant, serving what we hope is really great food.”
The Essence Of Wolfgat
Modesty is definitely a strong trait of Kobus. As winner of the 2018 Eat Out S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year award too, there is no doubt that he is a phenomenally talented cook.
And there is no way in hell that any diner would be disappointed by the carefully curated ingredients he so masterfully pairs together to produce flavourful course after course in his quaint little restaurant.
As I watch him and his team of five staff all rotate between cooking, plating, serving and clearing – while excited diners all but lick their plates – it is evident that there is no pretentiousness here.
I can understand Kobus’ desire to keep the essence of Wolfgat just as he intended when he first opened… a chilled seaside restaurant serving incredible West Coast cuisine.