An Interview with South African Chef Kobus van der Merwe

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An Interview with South African Chef Kobus van der Merwe

Forager-chef Kobus van der Merwe’s daily commute features farm gates, scrubby dunes, and the occasional stop to remove tortoises from his path. And the journey frequently doubles as an opportunity to stock up on ingredients for his celebrated restaurant, Oep ve Koep.

Six years ago, Kobus van der Merwe quit his job as an online editor for a restaurant review website in Cape Town, South Africa’s cosmopolitan tourism hub. He wasn’t quite sure what it was that he needed to do, but he knew he wanted to start fresh and do something more hands-on with food. And so he moved out of the city to the arid West Coast town
of Paternoster to live in a beautiful yet Spartan cottage deep in the veld.

What happened next was even more unusual. Rather than opening a fish
 and chip shop or a classic seafood restaurant—businesses that would have a decent chance of survival—he started something completely different with his restaurant Oep ve Koep (Afrikaans
for Open for Business). Unpretentious yet challenging, Oep ve Koep is a place radically different from anything to which even foodie South Africans are generally accustomed, and it has rapidly become
 a benchmark for modern, adventurous locavore food that reflects on centuries of culinary heritage.

The West Coast is a harsh, bleak part of the South African coastline, stretching from Cape Town right up to the Namibian border. The further north you drive, the drier the land becomes. Quite soon, it has become semi-desert; trees are few and far between, farming is tough, the wind is a constant companion, swimming in the icy Atlantic Ocean is an activity reserved for the brave, and the weather is consistently harsh. Harsh and hot, or harsh and cold—take your pick.

Of all the coastal towns on the West Coast, Paternoster is the postcard-worthy jewel. Featuring whitewashed old fishing cottages and a growing number of well-known eateries, it attracts both foreign and local visitors willing to make the two-hour drive from Cape Town during the summer months. Kobus’s family used to farm in the Northern Cape, an even drier region of South Africa further into the interior of the country. For most of his youth, until his parents moved there permanently, Paternoster was the family’s holiday destination. Now the van der Merwes run a shop (also called Oep ve Koep) in a building that used to be a shark liver oil factory.

Situated on the same property as his parents’ shop, Kobus’s restaurant has become the town’s most notable culinary drawcard, spilling out from his tiny kitchen into a small garden where tables are set.

What Kobus drives through on his daily commute from home—a tiny dwelling on an isolated smallholding about a 15-minute drive from Paternoster village—is Strandveld. Literally meaning beach scrub in Afrikaans, Strandveld is a type of vegetation specific to the West Coast of South Africa. (Its full name is Cape Flats Dune Strandveld and it’s officially defined as endangered.) The Strandveld around Paternoster covers land that was once ancient coastline—the larder of hunter-gatherer-forager peoples the San and the Khoikhoi. Drive into town with Kobus on his commute and you’ll find him regularly stopping during the journey (and not just to move tortoises from the sandy road!). Without a word of warning, he pulls up, puts his leather hat on his head, and disappears into a clump of innocuous-looking shrubs growing in the sand to search for plants—plants that turn out to be not only edible, but also very tasty too.

For decades, South Africa—perhaps as a legacy of apartheid and the international isolation that resulted from it—has been outward-looking, exploring tastes derived from what happened across oceans in another hemisphere. This includes the national palate, which was borrowed from Europe even though there’s a wealth of distinctive indigenous ingredients from which one can create truly local dishes. Kobus is at the vanguard of a new South African pride in valuing our culinary heritage.

“I’m extremely inspired by the landscape of the West Coast and its wild food offerings,” he says. “The more I’ve experimented, studied, and researched, the more fascinated and obsessed I’ve become. I think South Africa’s love of exoticism is finally changing. Even just on the small scale—such as using local olive oil instead of imported. I think the foraging trend will blow over, but to me, being on trend has never been the point. We don’t have the abundance of wild food to sustain everyone suddenly picking dune spinach willy-nilly, anyway! It’s rather about rediscovering forgotten indigenous flavors and appreciating, nurturing, and cultivating a culture of understanding and pride in what’s truly homegrown. Hopefully that includes the possibility of propagating indigenous species sustainably in a kind of small-scale permaculture or eco-agriculture… but even if it’s just planting your own wild garlic and kapokbos (indigenous wild rosemary) in pots at home, that’s already great.”

Kobus’s adoption of local and indigenous coastal ingredients is informed by the past, the distant past, and the present. Before it became cool to forage, Kobus was digging around in the dunes for long-forgotten succulents and other plants. Much of his inspiration came from the legendary Afrikaans poet, cook, and naturalist C. Louis Leipoldt. “I grew 
up with my parents and grandparents using Leipoldt’s cookbooks,” says
Kobus. “I’ve always admired his 
extensive knowledge of indigenous veldkos (bush food) and his passion 
for cooking innovative, truly local
dishes. He was a true renaissance man: physician, botanist, chef, poet. There’s
 a bit of hero worshipping from my side—his 1933 book, Kos vir die Kenner (Food for the Connoisseur), is my heritage food bible.”

Behind Kobus’s small house—it’s dwarfed by the expansive landscape in which it’s set—lie ancient archaeological sites of the San people. These are concentrated around Kasteelberg, a rocky pinnacle, but the cave paintings and shell middens of the area’s original foragers are found all along this coastline. Initially, when he was trying to understand where he could find edible plants, Kobus asked for the help of expert botanists. But as he grew to understand the Strandveld better, the penny dropped. Everything
he needed was right there in front of
him: it just emerges when the time is right. Which means that like the San
used to, Kobus forages according to the seasons—and his menu at Oep ve Koep changes accordingly.

“In winter there’s more of a creamy, umami, seaweed focus and in summer it’s more fresh and zingy. I find the transitions hard. I’m very connected to the weather personally. If the sun is out, my mood changes. It’s hard to make that shift. Yesterday the wind was blowing, it was really cold, misty, and wintery… and today it’s perfect, sunny, and blue. Bang.”

As much as possible, the focus of Kobus’s food is local. That means many
of the ingredients—Strandveld plants
like soutslaai (salt salad), dune lettuce, dune spinach, and dune celery, as 
well as seaweeds such as sea lettuce
and kelp are foraged. Then there’s the fast-disappearing and slow-growing heerenboontjie, a small South African heritage bean similar to a Lima bean that few farmers grow nowadays. Kobus has also begun distilling indigenous herbs such as buchu and wild garlic into vermouth.

All the menus at Oep ve Koep are constructed in relation to Kobus’s commitment to sustainability. His foraging efforts, for example, are conducted with great care for the vulnerable Strandveld vegetation.

Mediterranean mussels, a widespread alien species in South Africa, are picked o the rocks in front of Paternoster to feature on the menu, and the fish he uses—such as angelfish and locally caught kob—is all sustainable. At Oep
ve Koep, you won’t find the crayfish so ubiquitous in other Cape restaurants, as the industry is under immense fishing pressure. And you’ll also probably receive a subtle introduction to bokkoms, the plentiful sun-dried sardines of the West Coast. Loved by locals and in the past treated with suspicion by outsiders, they deliver umami in force.

If it’s a double-shift day, Kobus takes another short coastal drive to Mosselbank after lunch service to swim and clear
his head before returning to the kitchen for the dinner service. And if he isn’t serving dinner that day he heads back
to the farm, foraging along the way to come up with new dishes for Oep ve
Koep, which he tries out at home on an outdoor braai (barbecue). “I thought I’d come to Paternoster for a year to help my folks set up the eatery side of the shop,” says Kobus. “Now it’s six years later. Unexpectedly, I guess I found my groove.”

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