Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat: West Coast Hunter- Gatherer
Kobus van der Merwe is one of South Africa’s most treasured culinary gems. He truly embodies what it means to be mindful, ethical and resourceful, footsteps that more chefs could follow. He forages ingredients from the landscape of the Paternoster coastline and uses only sustainable, green-listed seafood for his intimate bistro Oep ve Koep and award-winning Wolfgat restaurant.
Talk a little about how you got into being a chef and what your journey was to get you to where you are now…
Kobus van der Merwe: Fresh out of high school I made a last-minute decision not to pursue a career in classical music, so I attended culinary school instead… after the first year I was certain that a commercial kitchen was not where I wanted to end up one day. I quit the course halfway through and then took a gap year as a working holidaymaker in the UK. On my return, I enrolled in Media Studies at the CPUT.
After graduation, I freelanced as a classical music reviewer for Die Burger before working as web editor for a travel startup, and eventually landed a job managing the Eat Out website.
My folks moving to Paternoster coincided with another bout of wanderlust on my part, so I quit my city office job and moved to the country to help them set up the eatery side of the family business. I slowly got back into the cooking groove…
Foraging is quite common these days but you are definitely one of the pioneers – how did you get into it to begin with?
Kobus van der Merwe: I think, similarly to a lot of South Africans, I grew up with my grandparents and parents still very much living off the land – at least when they had the chance to do so. Holidays at the sea we would spend picking mussels and abalone, and seaweed for making jelly.
On family visits to the Kalahari we collected wild watermelon and cucumbers and, on occasion, even desert truffles.
I am also a huge fan of Leipoldt and grew up with his cookbooks, which always include a strong focus on indigenous veldkos.
How did you learn what worked and what didn’t – was it trial and error?
Kobus van der Merwe: Immersion and experimentation, pretty much – both in the restaurant kitchen and at home. I love to try and find new combinations or uses for veldkos – it’s a continuous exploration.
There’s that saying “Weskus lus’ and certainly travelling through the area it’s hard not to appreciate its beauty – what do you think makes this area of our coastline so special?
Kobus van der Merwe: The rich history of early civilisation on this coast, the singular beauty of the Strandveld vegetation, the allure of the landscape…
What are the challenges of relying so heavily on nature for your produce?
Kobus van der Merwe: In a drought situation, like we have been experiencing for the past few years, it does become tricky to rely on a wild food component for a large part of the menu. At the height of summer, even some of the usually abundant edible succulents barely cling to life.
I have had a renewed interest in seaweeds, as there are a number of local seaweeds that can be sustainably picked throughout the year.
I find the challenge of representing the landscape in all its forms, and in every season, inspiring.
Is there a particular ingredient that is particularly elusive or sought after? Something that you’re always happy to see?
Kobus van der Merwe: Veldkool (trachyandra sp) – it’s only available for a small window period during winter. I never seem to get enough of it. It’s so healthy and delicious.
You’re cooking some of the world’s, best food while entirely remaining true to yourself, how do you avoid getting caught up in the ‘hype’ of the culinary industry?
Kobus van der Merwe: (That’s a generous compliment – thank you). As in most creative industries, I think it’s important to keep up, to stay informed, to find inspiration… but to not be consumed by it all. Also, never take yourself too seriously.
We’re guessing that your style of food resonates with people who understand your concept – have you come up against those who just don’t get it? How do you handle that?
Kobus van der Merwe: This style of food is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea – when guests book we make sure that they know what to expect.
How do you think chefs can encourage the diners to take an interest and be more aware of what they are eating?
Kobus van der Merwe: Chefs shouldn’t necessarily have to actively encourage anything – merely by serving sustainable, responsible and healthy food and never compromising quality and taste, you’re informing and creating awareness. As a chef, that’s your job.
But I think the responsibility is shifting, or at least is being shared more and more – it’s also up to the consumer to do their homework and to educate themselves about sustainability and seasonality etc.
If you are someone who enjoys to eat out – a “foodie” even – it comes with a big responsibility these days. Basically, stop ordering those ‘mountains of prawns’! And tortured pork bits or feedlot beef. It’s time to move on.
You are a WWF SASSI ambassador – why is this important to you?
Kobus van der Merwe: Food is everything – it’s entertainment, it’s politics, it’s socio-economics, it’s conservation… working in the food industry one has to be especially aware of and sensitive to a lot of modern day challenges and issues.
With pollution and over-fishing our oceans especially are in trouble – and serving seafood is particularly contentious. I think it’s important to support any conservationist initiatives in this regard.
Ultimate comfort food… a bowl of fresh mussels.
Best thing about winter… abundant wild greens.
Worst thing you’ve ever eaten… moules marinière at some tourist trap bistro in the Mediterranean.
Ingredient you wished you could forage for…everything! Icelandic reindeer moss, omajova mushrooms, Japanese knotweed, fiddlehead ferns, aronia berries… the list is endless.
Music you listen to when you cook…at the moment my playlist includes Murray Perahia playing Bach’s English suites, Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, Lola Versus Powerman and The Money-Go-Round by The Kinks, and The Hope Six Demolition Project by PJ Harvey.
Ultimate holiday activity… snorkelling.
Check out these recipes created byKobus van der Merwe
If you can get hold of the ingredients, you can try your hand at these West Coast inspired dishes.