In January 2018 I was full of inspiration to find out about ideas and actions that were different in the food world. I craved a story with a deep respect for the environment before anything else.
I had heard about Wolfgat and the foraging culture Kobus van der Merwe used there. Mostly it sounded like a chef who was doing something a bit differently and yet it was almost like he was still undiscovered. When I searched all things Wolfgat online, I found a restraint of information streams, an understatement of what Kobus was actually doing there. When Kobus granted me a full day in his kitchen with my camera, I found that same restraint and understated energy came from him. I would find him to be a gentle warrior.
My adventure With Kobus started with the morning forage in the local dunes, a short drive from the restaurant through the little seaside town of Paternoster and into the scrubby sand. We drove for quite a while to find the good stuff because, as Kobus told me, he had been experiencing difficulties with holiday-makers and their unauthorised driving through the dunes for fun and this obviously has a huge impact on the biosphere. Most people are simply unaware that many plants exist wholly together in this environment and all need each other to survive and thrive, let alone the fact that some of these plants are edible. Unsettling the balance unsettles the future of that ecosystem itself, and although it was very romantic to search among the dunes for the jewels of Paternoster, Kobus himself prefers to forage on abandoned land, construction sites and open fields where nature has taken over into what had been mans’ domain. He said the biggest advice he could give anyone living by the sea is to let the dunes’ naturally occurring plants grow into a garden by your house rather than planting that which is not indigenous to the area. It grows like weeds and sorts itself out with food and water and you can harvest and eat some of what grows there. We went to an open piece of land just off the dunes and found that although it had been dug clean many months before, it was now covered in beady rugs of crystaline alien looking plants, mostly all edible. All around these plants was a sad looking grey sand and yet, in the middle of that desolation, these green and pink beauties were thriving. We picked and ate quite a few different leaves and each one had flavours and textures I had never experienced before that.
Kobus is clearly passionate about understanding and preserving his local environment. He continues to shine a light on discovering how we can be in balance with nature and learn new ways to use previously unknown edible dune plants.
Everything I tasted from the menu that day was new. Sure I’ve tasted grapes before, but not with a mussel creme patisserie and dune spinach! I found the crystaline dune leaves fascinating in texture. Crunchy, yes… but it was like biting into water, not a cucumber or an apple texture, it really was unique. I ate fried scoby with sour fig sap and cape gooseberries, bokkom (dried fish) butter and bread, soutslaai and fresh fish caught that day, mussels, seaweed and local beer, and the tinctures brewed and steeped by Kobus. Every dish was unusual, new and refreshing. As I spent the day watching the goings on of this little restaurant, I felt that time passes slowly here, his restaurant team is his family, and everyone knows everyone in the village, everyone knows Kobus and how he supports the local community. His food is exceptional, innovative and delicious, but it is his gentle heart and clear place in the community that really stands out. This was very evident when Wolfgat recently won the award for restaurant of the year and videos of the community welcoming him home with speeches and song sparked across the internet. Currently Wolfgat is booked out for 3 months and rising as a result of this award.
It’s also fitting that he has won the chefs’ chef award at home in South Africa. For chefs based in the city or winelands there is a certain expectation of what should be on the menu. There is obviously great innovation and experimentation there but still, known ingredients, familiar flavour profiles, a good distribution of beef, pork and fish across the menu and a ‘something for everyone’ culture is what brings in the money. But not for Kobus, out there on the edge by the sea, who cooks what he finds when he finds it. He doesnt have to deal with coming up with a new ways to serve chicken or using up the box of mangoes that came in last week, he picks alikreukel and mussels from the rocks below the restaurant and collects samphire, sea lettuce and fresh fish off the boat from the beach. He has no rules except local is lekker. There is an enviable freedom in that.