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Various factors make Kobus van der Merwe an outsider in the food business. First and foremost, his timing: he only started to cook seven years ago at the age of 30, which led him to give up his job as a web editor for Eat Out magazine, without having done any of the customary culinary training.
And then, the location: Paternoster, a bay off the beaten track on the South African West Coast, where he was the first to launch the concept of foraging, a philological form of foraging at 14,000 km from Scandinavian latitudes where it is normally practised.
From the stage of Identità Golose chefs' congress he recounted his curious career in the kitchen and showed us some equally curious plants from Paternoster where he opened his Wolfgat restaurant six months ago, in a tiny cottage – with room for just 20 diners – where he offers a South African tasting experience lasting three hours.
With weldkos (edible plants growing locally) and algae, seafood and shrubs, Kobus creates simple minimalist dishes which capture the flavours of an environment whose beauty is wild and complex.
Foraging is very trendy at the moment in Europe. Is it the same in South Africa?
It’s very much a trend just in the top restaurants, but we started before it became popular. I wanted to represent the place where the restaurant is giving people an idea of localised flavours. It’s absurd to drive two hours from Cape Town, get to this beautiful bay, and eat fish and chips – something that doesn’t represent our history and our products. In South Africa we had an inferiority complex for a long time, we imported everything.
How did you develop your concept of West Coast cuisine, something that didn’t exist before you?
I worked along with food historians and botanists, we made a lot of regional research and experimentation. Some traditions or foods had been documented, but never tested in a laboratory: we proved that all this wild stuff is extremely nutritious, also considering that it grows with no water and no pesticides. I hope that what I did opened the doors for more people. There’s still no such thing as a movement, but it’s an exciting time, I’m meeting so many people that are getting more aware. A lot of research still needs to be done.
Does something as South African cuisine actually exist?
Not really. We’re starting to create an identity, but South African cuisine is a tricky thing to pinpoint, we have 11 official languages and so many indigenous people with different backgrounds. There is actually something as a 'Cape Malay cuisine': the town used to be a refreshment station, and the dishes are heavily influenced by the spice route. The 'new South African cuisine,' as we may call it, is taking inspiration from all these different cultures.
In your cuisine you try to use as little technology as possible. What does it mean for your everyday job?
My concept/philosophy is totally non-industrial, I have zero fancy equipment, paco jets and stuff like that. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I want to interfere as little as possible with the products, and to keep them as pure as possible, raw and untreated. The kitchen is completely open. It’s a very minimalist approach: it doesn’t make sense to gather amazing herbs, but then transform them into a sauce that has nothing to do with them.
You made a dramatic life switch years ago. Do you ever have regrets?
Never. I had already started culinary school before becoming an editor, but then I got scared and I ran in the opposite direction. When I joined my parents' shop and eatery – one of those places that sell basically everything, edible and non edible – I started experimenting, slowly and gradually, and proposing a tasting menu. It took me seven years to get here, open Wolfgat and find my own kind of direction.
Your cuisine is strictly seasonal. What’s the best season for you to work in?
We live in a sort of semidesert with very dry summers, when few things manage to grow. Last summer in particular was really hard, almost five months without a single drop of rain. Winter is completely the opposite: a lot of rain, nature responds miraculously, with plenty of vegetables, edible flowers … it’s the contrast that’s interesting.