On South Africa’s western coast, one chef looks to his surroundings—and local culinary lore—to inspire a singular new genre of regional cuisine. By Richard Holmes
There’s something about the quality of light on the western coast of South Africa. It’s harsh and pure, with a brightness that makes you narrow your eyes as you gaze down the miles of empty beach. It’s this raw beauty that attracts travellers, many of them Capetonians like myself, to the windswept stretch of shoreline about a two-hour drive north of Cape Town. With its whitewashed houses and cerulean seas, it easily evokes comparisons to the Greek islands, and the village of Paternoster has long been a popular spot for weekend escapes and second homes. But a gastronomic destination with global cachet? Not so much.
At least, not until Kobus van der Merwe left his big-city media job to help his parents run their quaint country store in Paternoster, where they’d finally settled after years of visiting the village on holiday. His first small restaurant, Oep ve Koep, opened in 2010. It was there that he developed his notion of Strandveld cuisine, named after the local vegetation, hardy shrubs and succulents that flourish in the rocky hills and coastal flats. Van der Merwe’s cooking celebrates the wild ingredients of this stark landscape, often referencing the culinary heritage—both ancient and modern—of the region.
As I walked along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean on a recent visit, I saw salt-crusted boulders and the occasional spray of beach grass or nest of seaweed, but nothing that immediately presented itself as worthy of a taste test. But therein lies van der Merwe’s artistry.
The chef, now 40, has evolved and refined his cuisine at Wolfgat, the restaurant he opened in 2016 in a cottage overlooking a wide sweep of sand stretching away to the north. There is an obvious parallel between the New Nordic movement and van der Merwe’s style of cooking; at Wolfgat, he plumbs local food history, incorporating tastes and techniques unique to this corner of South Africa.
In Wolfgat’s unfussy space, which seats just 20 for a seasonal seven-course tasting menu, I was happily, hungrily confronted with an array of uncommon ingredients. The fleshy, crunchy leaves of soutslaai—salt salad, so named for its briny, tart leaves—were served with pickled watermelon rind and pumpkin seeds. There was angelfish with fragrant wild garlic and rough-textured dune spinach with oysters and quince. Smoked snoek—a full-flavoured game fish that’s a local staple—was wrapped in thin sheets of kelp. I’ll admit, upon first encounter I was taken aback by the dish of wild limpets, commonly used as bait in these parts. But at Wolfgat, finely chopped, simmered in garlic and white wine, they were a delicacy to be discovered.
If the ingredients are often adventurous, van der Merwe’s plating revels in accessible simplicity. “These are often textures, shapes, and flavours that people haven’t encountered before, so I like to keep things raw and unprocessed, particularly the wild foods,” he told me. “We are constantly editing our dishes, taking things away rather than adding complexity. I love the clarity that comes with three or four bold elements on the plate—elements that work together yet speak for themselves.”
In addition to foraging in the wild, van der Merwe champions regional staples, drawing inspiration from the work of South African food historians. The chef has a particular affinity for the local heerenbone, akin to lima beans. In one season they may be a rich purée beneath a single, perfect, poached oyster. In another the beans are a creamy counterpart to the crunch of waterblommetjies, an aquatic flower that thrives in nearby wetlands. Perhaps more challenging are bokkoms, mullet heavily salted and hung to dry in the relentless winds of the west coast. Though they’re a local delicacy, these pungent snacks can be an acquired taste. I found them to be the perfect opener for van der Merwe’s menu; chopped and heated in butter, then delivered to the table still sizzling in an iron skillet.
Wolfgat has won numerous accolades—including Restaurant of the Year in the World Restaurant Awards last year. And even now, with fewer international visitors, there’s a two-month wait for a table—typical long before pandemic-related capacity limits were implemented. Still, the place retains an unassuming, low-key charm. The staff members are almost all locals; few have formal training. Preserves, vinegars, and foraged herbs fill the shelves behind a simple steel-topped table that separates patrons from chefs. Cement floors, beamed ceilings, and a wood fire in the hearth are about as much decor distraction as you’ll find here.
There’s a purity and rawness to both the space and the plates, not unlike that bright Southern Hemisphere sunshine glinting off the Atlantic. Wolfgat is a celebration and distillation of its seaside locale, a perfect mirror of its place in the world. Tasting menu INR 4,025.