Trained by Luke Dale Roberts and Heston Blumenthal, it comes as no surprise that Ash Heeger, owner and chef at ASH Restaurant in Cape Town, knows her way around a kitchen. What really struck us about this creative wonder woman however (fancy training or not), was her very evident love affair with food as an art form. With an unwavering commitment to culinary excellence paired with a refreshingly unique approach to dining, ASH has stolen the hearts (and tastebuds) of foodies the world over and we’re honoured to have her join our gang of incredible #femalestofollow.
We hear that you trained under Heston Blumenthal and Luke Dale Roberts. Please tell us what it was like being guided by these two amazing chefs, and how you think their style of cooking has influenced your own.
Luke was my first mentor. It was such a mind-blowing experience to have someone like him see enough potential in me to nurture for the four years that I worked under him. He also saw that I was coming out of my shell (finally) after a couple of years and encouraged me to spread my wings, setting me up with a job in the UK. To this day, he still remains my go-to for any big life decisions I need to make, whether it be professional or personal. He taught me a lot. I credit him with teaching me how to actually cook and then later, how to be a leader in the kitchen.
Working for Heston was another incredible experience. The Fat Duck group itself is such a well oiled machine with so many passionate people to be surrounded by. I credit Ashley Palmer-Watts (Exec chef of the FDG), Jonny Glass (Head Chef of Dinner by Heston), Allan Herrick (Snr Sous of Dinner by Heston) and Tom Allen (Head of Development for the FDG) for moulding me into the chef I am today. In hindsight, I was just a kid when I arrived in that kitchen. I left with a wealth of priceless knowledge.
In terms of style, I don’t feel like I have fully developed my own sense of style completely, yet. I think this comes with time. There are obviously techniques that I have taken from each kitchen I’ve been lucky enough to work in, as well as flavour profiles, etc. Just watch this space.
Dry Aged Prime Rib with Garlic Butter Mash, Choucroute Cabbage, Fried Baby Potato’s with Aioli
ASH seems to be flourishing. As a business owner, what has been some of the challenges in running your own restaurant? And more specifically, in such a male-dominated industry?
Phew. Where to start?
I often say to friends, employees, customers (anyone that will listen really) that I never ever realised how gruelling it is to be a business owner. I think if I had known, I definitely would have waited a few more years. I suppose this is why you don’t come across too many people who opened their first restaurant at 26. That being said, I don’t for one second regret taking the leap. When one becomes a business owner, you take other people’s lives into your own hands and become somewhat responsible for them. I’m talking about employees here.
It’s a very humbling experience having young chefs buy into your brand and ethos, and believing in what you do. Being a constant leader and stronghold for those young men and women has become increasingly important to me.
I’d say the biggest challenge is just the never-ending obstacles that tend to get in the way. Small things – someone not showing up for work, produce not being up to scratch, etc. Big things – legalities, a water pipe bursting, a fire, etc. And then of course just the day-to-day of running a restaurant which is a massive undertaking. I learnt very quickly that without a committed team of good, solid people that all of the above is impossible.
The industry is becoming less and less male dominated (I think). There are so many strong female chefs absolutely smashing it at the moment, not only in South Africa, but globally. And why not? I didn’t really take my sex into account when I chose this career and I’m glad I didn’t. I would hate to have been intimidated by a stereotype that doesn’t really even apply anymore.
How do you classify your style of cuisine and what cuisine do you think you are most influenced by. How do you bring that flavour into your food?
Like I said earlier, I think my style is changing and developing as I grow. I’m not sure if this will stagnate at some point or if I’ll still be growing when I’m old and wrinkly. I suppose we’ll see. I think right now it’s quite modern. I enjoy using local ingredients in new ways and trying to push the boundaries of South African palates. I never intended to open a fine dining restaurant and I don’t think this one ever will be. But I did and still do want to offer guests delicious, unpretentious, beautiful plates in a relaxed setting. Every new dish we put out is a little better and every service we have is a little smoother.
What was the first meal you remember cooking and when did your passion for cooking on coal begin?
Ha.. The first “meal” I made was a Creme Brûlée. I was ten and I’d already decided I was going to be a chef… Even though I had absolutely no clue what that would actually entail. I just knew it was for me.
Anyway, I was obsessed with the cooking channel on TV and creme brûlée was all the rage at the time (1999). I honestly think I made about 20 batches before it actually came out properly. I was just so chuffed with myself. I then decided that I needed to present it to my whole family, so I cooked some overly peppery, overly salty lamb chops with undercooked, sautéed potatoes. It was a disaster, but at least the creme brûlée was a win.
I started to get really into cooking over coals when I worked at Dinner by Heston. We used the same piece of machinery as I now use in my own kitchen. You honestly just can’t beat it. The flavour that coal imparts on meat, veggies, and even fruit and dairy is just next level, in my opinion.
ASH has recently been renovated and relaunched with a brand new menu. How long do you usually work on a new menu for? And what rituals do you have in place for this kind of creative development?
We change our menu each season. Obviously we have a couple of specials every day but the skeleton of the menu doesn’t change until the following season.
It really depends on how much time I can dedicate to it. Sometimes I sit down for a full two days and just smash out hundreds of ideas and then whittle them down until i feel like I have a balanced offering. Other times I sort of just jot down an idea as I go along. I much prefer just sitting down and getting it done, start to finish. Obviously this changes as we start the recipe development process, but not by much.
Generally we start with what’s seasonal. Fruit and veggies. Then protein. Seems strange to do it that way, but our meat and fish is much more consistent, so it makes more sense to design a dish around the fruit and vegetables. We need to assess how long the season of the fruit or vegetable is and if it’s worth putting it on the menu for only a couple of weeks or months. Then we question whether our entire plate is sustainably sourced. Ethical? Delicious? Does it look wonderful? Yes! Perfect. Good to go.