The inaugural World Restaurant Awards took place in Paris on 18 February 2019 where some of the world’s best chefs and game-changing restaurants were awarded and celebrated for their role in the global restaurant industry.
The new international restaurant awards comprises a more progressive list of categories – which are judged by a panel of of experts from across the globe including Eat Out’s chief judge Margot Janse – in an attempt to reflect the range of diversity in the global restaurant scene.
South Africa’s very own Wolfgat was shortlisted and announced as the winner in the Off-Map Destination category and, in a spectacular ending to the ceremony, took home the awards’ highest honours as Restaurant of the Year.
Wolfgat‘s head chef Kobus van der Merwe – Eat Out’s reigning S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Chef of the Year – was in attendance at the Paris event to receive the awards, one of which was presented to him by the always-glam television host, celeb chef and fellow South African, Lorna Maseko.
The restaurant, which is housed in a converted 130-year-old fisherman’s beach cottage in Paternoster offers one of the best, most untouched views in the country and is praised for a menu that is built freshness and locality. “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,” reads the World Restaurant Awards website.
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.
“I’m really proud to bring something like this back to our continent and beautiful country. I’m very proud to be working in a team of mostly women,” says Kobus.