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Tiny S. Africa beach restaurant crowned best in world

Chef Kobus van der Merwe received the Restaurant of the Year award for his beach restaurant Wolfgat in South Africa during the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in Paris © AFP / Thomas SAMSON

Paris, France, Feb 19 – A tiny beach restaurant in an isolated South African fishing village was named the best in the world on Monday.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe, who did not begin to cook seriously until he was 30, forages every day for ingredients on the wild Atlantic shore of the Western Cape near his Wolfgat restaurant, where he also makes his own bread and butter.

The Wolfgat — whose six mostly female staff have no formal training — opened just two years ago in a 130-year-old cottage and cave on the beach at Paternoster.

Its seven-course tasting menu costs the equivalent of 53 euros ($60), a fraction of what you would pay at a top Paris table.

But its humble setting, and Van der Merwe’s belief in sustainable, back-to-basics cooking won over the judges of the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in the French capital.

The 38-year-old, who can feed only 20 people at a sitting, told AFP, “I don’t feel worthy. It’s a big title. My staff who go out every day gathering herbs, succulents and dune spinach, should be here… It’s their baby.

“I can’t wait to celebrate with them with a big glass of South African sparkling wine.”

With dishes such as twice-cooked laver (seaweed), angelfish with bokkom sambal and wild garlic masala, limpets, mussels and sea vegetables harvested within sight of its “stoep” (porch), Wolfgat also won the prize for best “Off-Map Destination”.

The bearded Van der Merwe — a former journalist — said that apart from the influence of the subtle spices of local Cape Malay cooking, his philosophy was to “interfere as little as possible with the products, and to keep them pure, raw and untreated.

“It’s hyper local cuisine but we try to come up with new flavours, like dune celery spice.”

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– Pig’s bladder pasta –

With “no kitchen hierarchy”, he said, “we all do everything.

“If you pick something you prepare it yourself and maybe then take it to the table and explain it to the customers.”

The chef, who said he would not be hiking up prices, said his win was a victory for the African “continent and my beautiful, diverse country”.

No-nonsense restaurants known for their affordable food featured prominently in the awards, set up by one of the 50 Best Restaurants list’s own founders, Joe Warwick, to challenge its primacy.

While the 50 Best has been hit by allegations of lobbying and bias against French cuisine, the new awards claim to pride themselves on their “diversity and integrity”, with 50 men and 50 women on the judging panels.

Nor were they afraid to send up industry cliches with a range of tongue-in-cheek prizes for the “Tattoo-free chef of the year” (won by French culinary legend Alain Ducasse) and the “Tweezer-free kitchen of the year” (Bangkok’s Bo.lan).

Sao Paulo’s lively Mocoto, named for the Brazilian cow’s hoof stew its serves, won the “No Reservations Required” category, while the house special went to Italy’s rather ritzier Lido 84 — overlooking Lake Garda — which boils its “cacio e pepe” pasta inside a pig’s bladder.

– French hat-trick –

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Andoni Luis Aduriz, regarded as Spain’s most pioneering chef since El Bulli’s Ferran Adria hung up his apron, won the “Forward Drinking” prize for the “stellar” good value wine list at his San Sebastian eatery, Mugaritz.

London’s Noble Rot took a subsidiary “small plate” prize for its red wine.

The “Event of the Year” continued the down-to-earth theme, going to the Refugee Food Festival, which began in France and has now spread to 18 cities worldwide.

It completed a French hat-trick of top prizes with the legendary La Mere Brazier in the country’s culinary capital of Lyon taking the “Enduring Classic” crown, while the top-end Paris table Le Clarence won for “Original Thinking”.

Italian superchef Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana tops the 50 Best list, took the “Ethical Thinking” honour for the Food for the Soul community kitchens he helped set up to fight food waste.

Ireland scored a surprise double, with two Cork restaurants bringing home prizes. Ballymaloe House won for best dessert trolley and the vegetarian mecca Paradiso for its hook-up with Gortnanain Farm.

Judges including Rene Redzepi of Denmark’s Noma restaurant, cookbook king Yotam Ottolenghi and Northern Irish chef Clare Smyth, the first woman to win three Michelin stars in Britain, also had to cogitate over which restaurant had the best Instagram account — that of Paris vegetable guru Alain Passard.

While Redzepi narrowly missed out on three prizes, his longtime Noma underling German-born Thomas Frebel won the “Arrival of the Year” prize for his new Tokyo table, Inua, which has been hailed as “Japan’s most exciting” new restaurant.

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