Kobus van der Merwe

Chef

If you take a trip to Paternoster, you might find Kobus van der Merwe on the seashore foraging for seaweed or dune celery.

Later he’ll cook them in Oep ve Koep, a tiny bistro attached to Die Winkel, the shop that his parents run in this small Western Cape fishing village.

The bistro is a one-man show, partly because it only seats 20 and partly because the kitchen is too tiny to give anyone else elbow room.

Van der Merwe (33) describes his food as heritage cuisine. “It’s a mash-up between Cape Malay and some Afrikaans dishes, but I like to take it further back by being inspired by the rich history of the West Coast and using ingredients that the early civilisations of hunters, herders and foragers had at their disposal such as small game, foraged shellfish and wild vegetation.”

An example is his scenic surf-and-turf of small game such as steenbok or springbok served with limpets and seasonal wild greens. He buys the game from suppliers, but finds or grows the other ingredients himself.

At first diners were a little nervous, he admits. “People see the menu and feel they need to step out of their comfort zone, but after a few mouthfuls they realise it’s not other-wordly. Even though it sounds unfamiliar I don’t think the tastes are that strange in the end.”

His reputation is certainly spreading, with the Wall Street Journal in February describing him as a “maverick chef” with an unassuming yet inventive bistro.

Van der Merwe initially dropped out of culinary school, went travelling, took a course in media studies and ended up editing an online restaurant guide.

“That’s when I realised I’m not cut out for an office job,” he says.

He remains very much a small-town boy, and is happy with the size of Oep ve Koep. “Picking wild leaves isn’t something you can do for 100 people so it’s something I like to share with a small group. You can quietly cause a revolution on your own somewhere doing something small. It doesn’t need to be big and loud,” he says.

Limpet and seaweed soup, anyone? — Lesley Stones