CRUSH CHATS TO Chef Ash Heeger
Ash Heeger, one of Cape Town’s brightest culinary stars is finally back from the UK to give Cape Town diners a taste of her own food.
ASH restaurant is being set up in collaboration with free-range butchery Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants and Publik Wine. Chef and owner, Ash Heeger, talks to Crush about the journey to opening ASH and what we can look forward to when the doors open towards end March/beginning April 2016.
Tell us about yourself and Ash restaurant…
I graduated from cookery school in 2010 after spending the year at La Colombe with Luke Dale-Roberts who then asked me if I would like to be involved in The Test Kitchen. In 2013 I moved to London with my lovely girlfriend and started working at The Ledbury, which was a real learning curve. I moved to Dinner [by Heston] and worked there for just under two years. And now, I’m back. The restaurant ASH is one of those punny names. Obviously my name’s Ash and we’re cooking on an indoor barbecue. A very special indoor barbecue called a Josper, made in Spain, of galvanized steel that allows for very high temperatures while maintaining fairly regular heat throughout. It imparts a really intense charcoal flavour in a very short period of time. You can cook anything from a very thin piece of steak to a whole leg of lamb.
Tell us about the food…
When you think of fine dining as you know it now, you think of frills, you think of a certain pretence attached to the experience (or at least I do) – intensely shined silverware and white linen. So we’re basically doing the opposite, and we’re going for matte, bare, lots of wood, lots of stone for the interior and a very similar, simple concept for the food. Instead of taking unnecessary things and putting them on the plate and having lots of different techniques in lots of different facets, we’re going to take one or two things and showcase them. It’s going to be the type of place that you can go and not feel like you have to act in any particular way. You can come for an anniversary or birthday or a quick bite. It’s really up to you. What’s interesting about the restaurant and the food is that it’s a limited way of cooking where we’re basing the menu on what Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants has available. It’s a nose to tail approach to cooking.
How did this collaboration with The Fenners of Frankie Fenner and David Cope of Publik come to fruition?
I believe it was towards the end of February 2015 that Andy wrote an open letter to the chefs of South Africa. In this letter, which I believe is still up on his blog, he said that he was looking for someone who was ready to step up and come to cook in the space (FFMM x PUBLIK). I was in London at the time, and had no real reason to return home, or so I thought. Anyway, I was really moved by what he said so I left a comment. Something along the lines of “what about me?” Andy replied almost immediately and by the end of that day I had pretty much made up my mind. I was going to move home, and we were going to do this thing.
Why is the cause of free-range meat so important to you?
To be brutally honest, it wasn’t important to me for many years. If we had this conversation before I left for London, I wouldn’t really have much to say. There’s a huge appreciation for free- range farmers over there. Chefs are educated constantly on what hard work it is to raise these animals and the sequence of events that lead to a carcass eventually landing up on our butcher’s block. At Dinner by Heston we constantly had the opportunity to go to the farms, meet the farmers and the animals which really brought it home for me. A few of us went to our pig supplier’s farm and we held piglets that were less than a day old. Half an hour later we were in the abattoir watching the adult sows being slaughtered. It’s tough to watch, but that really changed the way I look at what I cook and eat. Now, the other end of the spectrum was driving through West Texas last year. For hundreds of miles, as far as the eye can see, are feed lots with thousands of cows, tens of thousands. The adults are all standing in single file in these metal turnstiles, with no space to move. All they can manage to do is eat the grain below them. Even after losing sight of the feedlots, the stench that hangs in the air is absolutely putrid. How could I possibly cook and eat that meat and still be able to sleep at night?
Food trends are always changing, do you think this shift towards responsible eating is here to stay?
I definitely think so; I think that the time of excess is over and that people want to know where their food comes from, they’re being much more health conscious and I think if anything it’s going to progress to another level within the next few years.
What has been the biggest challenge, to date, of setting up the restaurant?
I’d say check again with me in 6 months, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of horror stories by then.
You’ve had an illustrious and impressive career for someone so young, working in the world’s best restaurants – how does it feel to have achieved so much before the age of 27?
I really don’t think I’ve achieved that much from anything other than hard work. I got here because I showed up early, I left late and I never gave up.
What makes you happiest at the end of the day?
My little family that consists of a little dog called Mash and a lovely lady called Jess.
Current favourite ingredient: I have a real thing for Old Bay seasoning right now.
Kitchen tool you can’t live without: A spoon.
Guilty food pleasure: Woolies Salt and Vinegar straw-shaped chips and sour cream dip. Terrible.
Drink after hard service: Beer. Or whiskey.
Last meal on earth: Something beefy, possibly a burger…
To follow the progress and opening of ASH restaurant, follow Ash on Twitter | Instagram.