How a beachside cottage with 20 seats became the world's restaurant of the year

Wolfgat seats just 20 diners in a tiny cottage in Paternoster, a fishing village more than two hours’ drive from Cape Town.

And it is the most exciting place on the planet to eat. Good luck getting a table.

Booking opens a maximum of three months in advance. But no tables are available.

The World Restaurant Awards this week handed the top accolade—Restaurant of the Year—to chef Kobus van der Merwe, who opened Wolfgat in his parents’ 130-year-old property in September 2016. He traveled to Paris from Paternoster (pop. 1,971) in the Western Cape without even knowing he’d won. Now he is already having to try to reckon how to handle the sudden acclaim.

"I’m incredibly proud of my team," he said in an interview. "They have no formal food background and now they are recognized on a world stage."

Forage, cook and serve together

What is so special about Wolfgat? Well, Van der Merwe works with a tiny team of local people who go foraging together, cook together and serve together. They even do the washing up together. There are just six of them in total, and they learned on the job. 

"We don’t have a distinction between front of house and the kitchen," he says. "We serve a small tasting menu of seafood enhanced by seasonal wild herbs and succulents and seaweed that we pick around the village."

Guests must give a day’s notice they are coming, and then the team picks sufficient ingredients to serve that number. There’s no waste. Van der Merwe sometimes will try to squeeze in 24 diners.

The cost? It’s 850 rand ($60), which would barely buy you a starter in the gastronomic temples of Paris.

Didn't want to be a chef

Van der Merwe was born in the Northern Cape and went to culinary school in Stellenbosch, where he grew up. He didn’t want to be a chef.

"My first love was going to be classical music or fine arts," he says. "Culinary school was kind of a fallback and I didn’t think it was for me so I didn’t finish my course." Stints as a music critic and web editor at Eat Out, a restaurant guide, followed.

"And that’s where I realized I missed, I felt like I was on the wrong side of the industry," he said. "Wolfgat is the result of that: It’s a fine-tuned, slightly more considered next project for us."

The accolade was announced on Monday night at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in Paris. The judging panel included some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including chefs Elena Arzak (Arzak), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana); David Chang (Momofuku); Hélène Darroze (Hélène Darroze) Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park); Rene Redzepi (Noma); and Clare Smyth (Core). I am one of several journalists on the panel but wasn’t involved in the selection of Wolfgat.

The awards, owned by IMG, the multinational entertainment concern behind everything from Fashion Week to the Frieze Art Fair.

Other winners included Vespertine, Los Angeles (Atmosphere); La Mère Brazier, Lyon (Enduring Classic); Mugaritz, San Sebastian (Forward Drinking) and Le Clarence, Paris (Original Thinking.)

The selection of Wolfgat was made by a smaller group of 12, led by the awards’ creative director, Joe Warwick. 

"Wolfgat is sustainable and it’s in Africa, which is not a continent that gets a great amount of attention for its food and its restaurants," he said. "It was the perfect restaurant for us."

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