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Award-winning Wolfgat chef begs Ramaphosa to allow wine sales, to save jobs and lives

Award-winning Wolfgat chef begs Ramaphosa to allow wine sales, to save jobs and lives

Wolfgat, in the Cape West Coast fishing village of Paternoster, was named the Best Restaurant in the World at The World Restaurant Awards in Paris in February 2019. This week, chef Kobus van der Merwe addressed a heartfelt letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and agreed to have Daily Maverick publish his letter, adding that he has also personally sent his plea to the President.

Your excellency, President Cyril Ramaphosa,

We think back fondly to the day of your visit to Wolfgat restaurant in December 2019. What an amazing honour it was for team Wolfgat, and the Paternoster community, to welcome you to our village.

We were excited yet nervous about the protocol of hosting a statesman. Communication from your team was that we should do everything as normal as possible since you wanted to enjoy the full Wolfgat experience.

We could barely contain our excitement and pride while setting “Table 1” – our best table, overlooking the Paternoster bay – knowing we were preparing it for the president and five guests.

I was thrilled when you decided to opt for the wine pairing – since I double as “wine waiter”, this meant I had the privilege of spending a little more time tableside, interacting with you and your lovely family. The atmosphere at the table was jovial and relaxed, full of friendly banter. I had to pinch myself that this once-in-a-lifetime moment – hosting our president at my table! – was indeed real.

Throughout the afternoon’s wine service, you kept me on my toes, repeatedly informing me in jest that one of the young women at the table – a friend of the family it seemed – was extremely knowledgeable about wine and also a world record holder (I suppose in reference to our title of “World Restaurant of the Year” for 2019). You chuckled and said I ought to be nervous. (Of course. I was nervous!) We all laughed.

After I introduced the wine for the main course, you joked and asked if one could taste “sunshine” in the wine. And you shared a wonderful anecdote of an acquaintance of yours diffusing some pretentious wine-tasting ceremony laced with jargon, by proclaiming that the wine being analysed tasted of “sunshine”.

Following the dessert course, we asked you if it would be possible to take a selfie with the restaurant team, and you smiled warmly and agreed.

You stood next to me at the kitchen pass and paused for a moment to listen to the music playing in the restaurant. You said you loved that we have Miles Davis on the playlist. (We love that you love Miles Davis!)

You spoke to me and the team about our achievement of World Restaurant of the Year 2019 and how proud you and the country were of us for this international accomplishment. Our hearts were swollen with pride. On the photograph of you posing with team Wolfgat in our small kitchen, you can see all of us beaming.

For us, wine is integral to the meal we present at Wolfgat. If we can’t serve wine, we cannot give our patrons our full, internationally acknowledged restaurant experience. Not to mention losing out on significant revenue.

As you were about to leave, you spotted the World Restaurant Awards trophy on display at the Wolfgat front door. You excitedly suggested that we should take a selfie together posing with the trophy. It was taken on your phone. I’m still hoping to get a copy of that photo of us standing in the Wolfgat doorway, holding the heavy trophy. It was a “World Cup” moment for Wolfgat.

During the course of lunch, some fans and curious passers-by had assembled outside the restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse of you, or to shake your hand.

Although you were on holiday and had just enjoyed a relaxing, intimate and very private lunch with your family, eating Strandveld food and drinking the best local wine from the finest small producers in the Swartland, you still had the time and energy to graciously address the small crowd outside Wolfgat, making friendly conversation and posing for selfies. I was in awe of this respectful gesture. One of the couples dining at Wolfgat that day asked for a picture with you and you obliged. They came back into the restaurant crying and said: “He is so nice!”

Leaving Paternoster, you stopped your entire convoy and got out of your official vehicle to buy fruit from our seasonal fruit stall, run by Fairoez Solomon Adams.

All of this, after enjoying a multi-course tasting menu paired with a selection of different wines.

Mr President, like our fellow South African restaurants, we serve alcohol responsibly at Wolfgat. And on the day of your visit, we couldn’t be more proud to showcase for you a range of proudly South African wines from world-class small producers alongside our seven courses of seasonal west coast dishes.

For us, wine is integral to the meal we present at Wolfgat. If we can’t serve wine, we cannot give our patrons our full, internationally acknowledged restaurant experience. Not to mention losing out on significant revenue.

We have been in full support of the drastic measures implemented during the current pandemic and were first to close our restaurant doors – even before the national lockdown – in order to aid in flattening the curve. Since reopening for sit-down meals recently – at only half our usual capacity – we adhere to screening of staff and guests, strict physical distancing, mask wearing and uncompromising sanitary protocols to keep our team and our guests safe, and to curb the spread of this deadly virus.

But Mr President, we are begging you to please help the restaurant and wine industries by lifting the blanket ban on alcohol and relaxing the 9pm curfew. With these restrictive measures in place, we are struggling to keep afloat and it is severely impacting the livelihoods of our teams and our families, and our communities.

We dream about the next “once in a lifetime” opportunity to host someone of your stature at Wolfgat. But like many of our colleagues, we’re not sure if our restaurant will survive to ever see that day. DM/MC

Best regards, 

Kobus van der Merwe, Wolfgat, Paternoster.