Cashing in on 'forgotten' food ingredients

Kobus van der Merwe, founder of Wolfgat. (Image: supplied)
Kobus van der Merwe, founder of Wolfgat. (Image: supplied)

Tired of city life, Kobus van der Merwe gave up his job as a web editor nine years ago to help his retired parents open their own bistro, Oep ve Koep, in Paternoster on the West Coast. 

Since then, he has opened his own restaurant, Wolfgat, which has been ranked one of the top 10 restaurants in the country in the 2018 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Awards and walked away with the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Chef of the Year title, which recognises an innovative chef who is pushing the boundaries and making a notable contribution to the South African restaurant scene. 

What did you do before Oep ve Koep and Wolfgat?

After school, I entered a two-year diploma programme at the Institute of Culinary Arts, one of the top chef schools in the world. 

At that stage I wanted to be a musician, so I quit the course after the first year and went to London where I did administrative work for British Telecom.

On my return, I decided to rather do media studies because I also enjoyed writing, and career prospects in this field seemed more promising. 

My journalism career started out with me writing classical music reviews for Die Burger as a freelancer, after which I became employed as a copywriter for a travel website, where I got some exposure to HTML coding. 

This paved the way to my job as web editor of Eat Out, which in turn rekindled my passion for the art of fine dining. 

So, when my parents bought Oep ve Koep, I saw it as an opportunity to break out of the mediocrity of everyday city life and do my own thing. 

Tell us more about the reasoning behind your product offering at Oep ve Koep and Wolfgat?

When starting out at Oep ve Koep, I wanted to give visitors a truly unique Sandveld experience. 

Oep ve Koep gave me the platform to experiment with veld-harvested food, test out some traditional recipes and create food that celebrated the unique biodiversity of the West Coast. 

After seven years, I felt ready to take this endeavour to the next level and was fortunate when Wolfgat, perched on top of the Wolfgat cave, became available, as I felt the cave would enhance the eating experience by making people more aware of their roots and nature. 

Oep ve Koep is still open.

The two restaurants are complementary, with Wolfgat being more of a fine dining experience and building on the success of Oep ve Koep.    

Why this foraging food route?

The idea of foraging food became trendy around the same time as we started Oep ve Koep, with the restaurant Noma in Denmark becoming especially famous for it. 

I, however, went on this journey because it was something I grew up with and felt passionate about. 

My grandmother on my mother’s side used to make us seaweed jelly, while my grandfather on my dad’s side used to harvest all kinds of veldkos, such as Eland’s fig and Koekemakranka. 

We grew up with C. Louis Leipoldt’s Kos vir die Kenner cookbook, which uses veldkos and foraged ingredients in many of its recipes.   

My journey was more part of a collective reawakening to these foods than part of a new trend. 

My path has crossed with those of many interesting botanists and anthropologists since I started, and they have exposed me to many more crops and traditional cooking methods. 

Where did you get money to start the Wolfgat restaurant?

It was not that expensive, since I rent the premises. 

Overheads were kept low by mixing and matching and making use of what we already had in terms of furniture and cutlery.  

How does the restaurant operate?

Oep ve Koep has a bakery, tasting room and serves traditional breakfasts as well as meals throughout the day. 

But at Wolfgat we have a seven-course set menu, costing R750 per person, excluding drinks. 

The menu is based on the seasonal availability of ingredients and the meal generally lasts for up to three-and-a-half hours. 

Wolfgat is open for lunch and dinner over weekends, but only lunch during the week. 

The slower pace during the week gives me time to harvest and experiment with the cooking and the growing of some of the ingredients used in our menu. 

Reservations have to be made in advance for catering purposes, and to prevent the wastage of food. 

We only have the capacity to accommodate 24 people at a time, which offers a good balance in terms of sustainable harvesting of the ingredients. 

How do you market the restaurant?

In the absence of a marketing budget, I do most of it myself via social media on Facebook and Instagram. 

It helps to be part of a strong network, since we receive many of our visitors via local guest houses.

We have taken a stance not to give free meals to food bloggers with thousands of followers. 

In my opinion, people will find you if you offer a good product. 

How do you cope with the business-side of the restaurant?

I initially shied away from the admin and books, leaving it right up to the last minute, but have since learnt to make it part of my regular routine. 

My six-month stint with school accountancy in grade eight has really come in handy. 

I generally try not to over-complicate by keeping the administration simple. 

I do most of the shopping myself, so have full control of my expenses.

How about the management of your staff?

I have a rather laissez-fair management style and since we work very long hours, seeing each other sometimes more than we see our families, I have tried to create a warm and friendly work environment. 

My staff is actually like family to me.

What has been your greatest challenge so far?

The fact that we are offering a unique eating experience is both a competitive advantage and disadvantage, since not everybody is open to the new tastes, flavours and textural experiences we offer. 

We have had to put a lot of effort into persuading people to trust us and at least try the food when we started out. 

This has definitely become easier now that we have built a reputation. 

Even so, it definitely is not everybody’s cup of tea. 

How has the business grown since you started it?

Wolfgat has become more fashionable, with bookings becoming fuller and our wine list has become more sophisticated, which helps to better complement the dishes on offer. 

I am still working with the same six employees with whom I have started out, with everybody helping with everything from the cooking to serving and cleaning. 

Being involved in the whole food preparation process means that everyone is able to talk to customers about our unique dishes.  

Don't you feel like you have wasted time by not going straight into the restaurant business after school?

No, the detours have helped to prepare me for what I am doing now. 

The Media Studies course had a PR component that has been handy on the promotion side of the restaurants, whereas my time at Eat Out exposed me to many other successful fine dining restaurants. 

People no longer finish school and then stay in the same job for the rest of their lives. 

Today, you have the ability to reinvent yourself a few times during your life and be like a Renaissance man, who specialises in a combination of fields and skills. 

The way I create food gives me as much satisfaction as when I play a musical instrument. 

Do you have a mentor?

Richard Carstens taught me while I was at the Institute for Culinary Arts and has become one of my greatest inspirations. 

He is like a walking encyclopaedia, filled with all kinds of intellectual knowledge of food, cooking techniques and cooking from different cultures.

Any advice for others who want to open a restaurant?

Don’t look at what is happening overseas. 

Let our rich food heritage inspire you to create your own path and then specialise in that field.       

What are your plans for the next five years?

Most visitors come this way during the summer holiday when it is dry and hot, so one of my goals is to raise awareness of the beauty of the West Coast during the winter when the region is transformed into a lush green. 

Most of the guest houses also have fireplaces, so it is a nice and cosy place to spend a winter break. 

We'll share these unique characteristics of the West Coast in winter on social media. 

This article originally appeared in the 7 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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