Female Chef Focus: Bea Malherbe of FYN

Words: Robyn Samuels

Welcome to the third installment of our Women’s Month series. This week we interview chef Bea Malherbe of FYN, a restaurant which recently ranked 37th in The World’s Best 50 Restaurants. In this refreshingly honest interview, chef Bea quotes the price of ‘success’ and takes stock of her experience as a female chef in South Africa. We also talk about her disdain for blunt knives and her love for seasonality and sustainability. Join the conversation.

female chefs in South Africa

Interview with chef Bea Malherbe

As the saying goes, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”. After initially enrolling for BSc Mathematics at Stellenbosch University, Bea realised that proving complex equations was perhaps not her calling. But, being a fifth-generation descendant of fruit farmers, she was always familiar with the meaning of hard work. She would then go on to work a series of odd jobs before breaking even as a chef.

In 2015, Bea took another stab at studying, this time enrolling in culinary school. The following year, she would meet Peter Templehoff and Ashley Moss, executive leads at FYN, and as she best said, ‘the rest is history’. Despite having grown up as a ‘little girl from Franschhoek’, who hadn’t the slightest clue about Japanese cuisine, Bea was recently appointed head chef at the world-renown neoteric African-Japanese restaurant, FYN.

Could you tell us how you got into cooking?

After matric, I went to Stellenbosch University to study for a degree in BSc Mathematical Science, but came to the realisation that an office job or 9 to 5 was not something that excited me. I left University without finishing my degree and felt like a major disappointment to my family. I started taking on random jobs to try and figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life.

One day, whilst searching the internet for random courses to do, I came across a cooking diploma at CTIA in Durbanville. I always had a great love for cooking, but never thought I would make a career out of it. I enrolled and started the course in 2015. At the beginning of 2016, I got an industry placement as a student at Greenhouse in Constantia, that’s where I met Peter Tempelhoff and Ashley Moss, and you could say the rest is history! Once I finished the diploma I applied for a job at Greenhouse and started there as a commis chef, that was the beginning of my professional career. In September of 2019, I started working at FYN, and by March 2022 I was promoted to head chef. Hard work does pay off.

How do you source inspiration for culinary concepts?

My biggest inspiration would be the produce itself — working with seasonality and sustainability. Whether it’s a piece of wagyu sirloin or a humble onion. I grew up on a fruit farm in Franschhoek, my brother and I are the 5th generation. I’ve always been in touch with nature and the produce. Handling ingredients with respect is very important, it’s our job as chefs. So, receiving amazing products from suppliers, paired with seasonal produce makes inspiration real easy. Regarding culinary concepts, it differs — sometimes you would think about a concept for months, figuring out how you can make it work, and other times, you will just wake up with an amazing idea and start executing it.

female chefs in South Africa

Who or what are some of your creative muses?

The ‘who’ is Rodolfo Guzman from Boragó, Chile. I am in awe of what he does, and it would be amazing to visit his restaurant one day. The ‘what’ is 100% nature.

When did your love for Japanese cuisine start?

I never thought I would end up in Japanese cuisine — a little girl from Franschhoek had no idea about what Japanese cooking was, but I would probably say around 2018. When I got introduced to it and started cooking it daily, my love for Japanese cuisine grew stronger. It’s clean, flavourful and not pretentious.

FYN recently ranked 37th on the list of The World’s Best 50 Restaurants — congrats! What do you attribute that success to?

We are unique in what we do. We do not mimic other restaurants or places. I believe it was a combination of many things — the beautiful interior of the restaurant and the setting, paired with amazing food, wine and service. Everything has to be immaculate.

FYN is a neoteric African-Japanese restaurant, two completely different cuisines and cultures. Why does it work so well?

It’s two cuisines that are completely opposite, but we made it work. Using African ingredients, but executing the dishes by using Japanese cooking techniques. Oddly enough, they complement each other well.

Have you made any mistakes that actually helped your career?

Haha, a lot! But you never make the same mistake twice. I can’t recall major ones now because I think my brain buried it. You can’t relive or focus on your mistakes. You have to strive to be better every day. Work harder than the day before.

What are some misconceptions people have about chefs?

I would say that people always think a successful professional chef has to be a man, which I don’t agree with at all. People in the restaurant industry tend to respect men more, so being a female you have to work a bit harder to gain the respect of your peers. But over the past few years, a lot of great female chefs are breaking through the scene and opening up great restaurants. Some female inspiration I look to is Pía León from Kjolle in Peru.

Do you have a mentor? How have they helped you as a chef today?

It would be Peter Tempelhoff, I look up to him a lot. I have learned so much from him through the years, and I keep on learning from him still today. He is a great inspiration for me — he is intelligent, a great chef and a good businessman. Where I am today is mainly because of him.

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with at the moment?

Anything part of the Brassica family; cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc… they are just so versatile and it’s easy to make them taste amazing. I’m going through a phase at home.

You’re hosting a dream dinner soirée for three of your favourite people. Who would be at the table?

I would only want one person there, and that would be my mother. I lost her when I was 21 and I would love for her to see the person I have become today.

How has your upbringing influenced your cooking?

I grew up in a household where food is important, it was family time. Cooking with my mother on weekends was a nice bonding experience. Food must give you a warm feeling, so what I’ve experienced as a child is what I want our guests to feel as well. Eating a plate of food must intrigue all your senses.

What’s the best thing about being a chef?

Being able to eat/taste constantly at work, haha. Wearing a uniform, my greatest stress in the morning is deciding what socks I want to put on. It’s a very social job, colleagues become family because we spend so much time together.

female chefs in South Africa

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Blunt knives! When people do not taste the food they have cooked before bringing it up to you. Lack of common sense.

What do you get up to on your days off?

I have a great love and passion for hiking, so whenever I am not in the kitchen you will find me out hiking as much as I can. I also make time for my family and friends. And I love a good afternoon nap.

What’s one thing that most people wouldn’t know about you?

I’m scared of a lot of things! Spiders, anything with too many legs, heights (that’s why I hike, to push myself to face my fears), small spaces, elephants and a major one — escalators.

Do you ever have days where you don’t feel like cooking? What do you eat or cook?

Yes, absolutely. If you spend most of your time in the kitchen there are days when you don’t feel like touching a pot or pan at home. Takeaways are a guilty pleasure, I’m not ashamed to admit that I eat McDonald’s from time to time.

Apart from cooking, what are you passionate about?

Nature; it’s our responsibility to look after earth as best as possible for future generations to come. Reduce, reuse, recycle where you can. Be sustainable in what you do.

female chefs in South Africa
wagyu

What advice would you have given yourself before becoming a chef?

It’s not going to be easy. There will be nights where you cry yourself to sleep, knowing that you have to be back at work in a couple of hours. But never give up, hard work does pay off and things will get easier. And keep your knives sharp, please!

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