Nothing Hampers Creativity at Wolfgat
South Africa’s Wolfgat Restaurant moved with typical elegance and grace to absorb the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, by swivelling their signature hyper-local fine dining experience to an immersive delivery experience.
TEXT AND PHOTOS RUSSEL WASSERFALL
Kobus began by painting an original watercolour of the view from the restaurant for the inside lid of each hamper he delivered.
Like many industries worldwide, hospitality and restaurant businesses have been devastated by quarantine or isolation measure put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Degrees of severity may differ, but in an industry where margins are notoriously slim and the work back-breaking, shutdowns lasting weeks or even months have been cruel.
South Africa, with its world-case Cape Town dining scene was particularly decisive and swift in declaring an emergency and total ‘lockdown’ of the economy. For five weeks beginning on March 27 the country was locked down with all but essential services forbidden from operating. The tourism and hospitality sector with restaurants employing as many as 500,000 people came to a complete standstill.
As tourism is a major economic driver for the Western Cape Province, and restaurants benefit massively from international visitors, lockdown and border closures were a double whammy. After five weeks of lockdown, the government began a cautious and staged approach to re-opening the economy. From May 16, we moved from Level 5 to Level 4 lockdown. Among other concessions, restaurants were allowed to offer a delivery service from their kitchens.
For many, burdened by heavy staff and rental bills, and teetering on the edge of ruin, opening was not worth the effort or the outlay. Many revered or stalwart restaurants threw in the towel, unable to continue trading. Some tried to adapt with varying degrees of success. Closure announcements continued as the economy cautiously opened, but so did success stories.
The simple eatery set in an historic fisherman’s cottage in Paternoster is the culinary canvas of chef Kobus van der Merwe.
Kobus couldn’t resist a final indulgence, so he added a homemade buttermilk-honey sorbet to the hamper.
The word ’pivot’ suddenly gained a new currency as it was repeatedly used to describe businesses transforming to survive in a new trading environment. It was easier for some than others, but restaurateurs are a hardy breed and have demonstrated a tremendous capacity for innovation.
If you are selling a burger, pizza, pasta or something else that can be presented in a box, it’s not impossible to pivot your restaurant. For the legions of globally-known fine-dining establishments selling an experience as much as a meal, it was a massive challenge.
Names like The Test Kitchen, La Colombe, Foliage, Chefs Warehouse had to think quick. With massive overheads and homebound staff to take care of, it was do-or-die for many of them. One of the first chefs to respond to the challenge was Wesley Randles formerly of The Test Kitchen and Shortmarket Club. Instead of burger and pizza boxes, he created a hamper with a complex dining experience inside. Pretty soon, hampers began emerging from the most elegant kitchens in the regions, prepared by skeleton kitchen brigades.
By far the most elegant and beautiful of all was the hamper offered by Chef Kobus van der Merwe from the kitchen of the best restaurant in the world. Wolfgat, in the tiny West Coast village of Paternoster, presents a limited menu of flavours, textures and ingredients gathered in the ‘Strandveld’ biosphere that surrounds it, and presented in a fine dining format.
Since being awarded top honours in The World Restaurant Awards, Wolfgat’s 20 seats have been fully booked well in advanced. Booking is limited to 3 months ahead, and it if permanently full. Lockdown and travel restrictions meant the return of 90 days’ worth of deposits added to the pain of paying his small team to stay home and weather the quarantine.
When level 4 offered the chance to trade a little in mid-May, Kobus was ready to pivot. He’d had time and impetus to think while in isolation, and the result was ethereal.
She-Earl Pietersen pictured here with Kobus, preparing one of Wolfgat´s beautiful dishes.
The hyper-local menu often includes wild oysters foraged at the shoreline in front of the restaurant.
Before lockdown was imposed, Wolfgat had just launched an Autumn menu based on a map of the region in which the team forages for its ingredients. It was served with a copy of the map so diners could immerse themselves more fully in the experience. Looking at this map one evening during lockdown, Kobus had an idea.
He decided to offer a remote experience of his restaurant in a fishing village in the Strandveld Fynbos region of the Western Cape region of South Africa. Each course was ‘set’ at a different location around the village - either because of ingredients found there, or because of a conceptual or thematic reason. The concept revolved around a ‘sense of place’ which sits at the very core of what Wolfgat Restaurant is about.
The most dramatic touch to this theme was a water-colour painted by Kobus himself. It depicted the view out to sea from his restaurant in it’s historic cottage. At first he painted a different original piece for every single hamper ordered, but demand became such that he began to include archival prints, only adding originals to special orders.
Besides the painting, there was a specially compiled playlist in the ‘immersive’ hamper as well as a map. The menu courses included seasonal wild food components starting with Wolfgat’s signature house Sourdough bread and homemade butter infused with bokkom – traditionally dried local fish called ‘harder’ - and a mix of wild and garden herbs.
Wolfgat Restaurant is situated in an Atlantic coast fishing village and normally booked up 3 months in advance. The map of Paternoster inspired the Autumn menu which was later adapted into a stunningly original delivery hamper.
Along with three snack items that changed with each weeks local gathering trips, there was a mussel soup starter. The main course consisted of lamb raised on Sandveld farms in the neighbouring Verlorenvlei area, prepared with kelp and mushroom. Dessert was an indulgence for colder weather in the form of a sticky pudding. Made ground sorghum grain, which Kobus prefers to maize or wheat, it also calls for raisins made from a locally grown table grape called Datal.
Working with local or heritage grains or grapes is a definitive signature for Kobus. Sorghum predates maize as a domestic crop in sub-Saharan Africa, is gluten-free and highly drought resistant. Its lower water requirement made it an important regional crop in the region long before the appearance of wheat. It’s heritage, like that of the earliest people to inhabit the cave for which his restaurant is named is one of the many things that inspires his unique culinary approach
Kobus couldn’t resist a final indulgence, so he added a homemade buttermilk-honey sorbet to the hamper. Packed separately on ice, it was added at the point of delivery, to ensure it arrived in perfect condition. This was so typical of the extra touches that earned this gentle and thoughtful chef a place on the global culinary map.
The hampers will probably disappear as the world slowly opens up again and restaurants find a way to trade in a new social and economic landscape. Perhaps they will remain though, as a way for Kobus van der Merwe to offer more diners the singular experience of his commitment to sustainable eating through local sourcing. Whatever form it takes, this chef’s ‘pivot’ will be enriching and rewarding, and especially thought-provoking for his global following.
The cosy little restaurants only seats 20, but the experience is one which earned them a place high in the global food firmament.