Ash Heeger, head chef and owner of Ash Restaurant.

Cape Town - Women are owning the professional kitchen space and even though the industry remains predominantly male throughout the world, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down the takeover. 

In South Africa, and particularly the food mecca of the country, Cape Town, we are lucky to have the cream of the culinary crop putting together our meals and menus. The talent on our local shores is mind-blowing. 

We feature some of the chefs making major waves in the food kingdom. Watch out for them!

Ash Heeger (27) - Head chef and owner of Ash Restaurant

Owner of her namesake restaurant Ash, Heeger has been dubbed one of the best women chefs in South Africa. 

Born in Transkei, she grew up in Cape Town and studied at Silwood School of Cookery.

Heeger worked with chef extraordinare Luke Dale Roberts at La Colombe and when he opened up the number one restaurant in the country, The
Test Kitchen, she moved with him.

“I moved to the UK in 2012 and work at The Ledbury and then Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. I then moved back to Cape Town in 2016 to open my own restaurant called Ash.”

Working in male-dominated kitchens is never easy but Heeger shares her secret. “The trick is to stand up for yourself. Never let yourself be intimidated by ANYONE in a kitchen, regardless of gender. Be strong and stand your ground.”

Heeger was lucky enough to have three strong women guide her through her life, her mom and her two sisters who she has drawn tremendous inspiration from.

Her restaurant in Church Street is unique, edgy and innovative - a complete reflection of her personality. You can be sure that with every meal Heeger is going to serve up the biggest plate of outstanding cuisine.

Shana Faes (39) - Pastry chef at The Southern Sun Cape Sun Hotel

“Growing up in Steenberg, a small coloured community in the Southern Suburbs, very few females had finished high school yet alone got a tertiary education. Being the youngest of three girls, my father the sole breadwinner in our family gave me the opportunity to study and realise my dream of being a pastry chef,” says Faes.

She spent every Sunday in the kitchen with her true inspirations, he mother and grandmother from a very young age and they guided her dreams.

“Both women were equally strong, humble and amazing cooks. They gave me the foundation I have built my career around and my love for baking.”

Faes studied at Protea college later known as North link college in Cape Town and admits that it hasn’t been easy getting to where she is today in such a male-heavy industry.

“I have not regretted my decision to become a chef as hard as it may have been to make my mark, or to earn the respect of my male peers. Woman struggle daily to prove their worth, working so much harder and longer hours just to earn the place they so rightly deserve," says Faes.

Her advice to all women is to have voices, stand up and be heard; times have changed for us so stay strong, never give up, and above all prove your worth not to others but to yourself.

“Drive and motivation comes from within, this is something that can’t be taught. Have the want and need to be a success in life and to make a difference. 

"For me it has also been teaching and giving back to all the young females that have crossed my path and watching them grow into successful woman (pastry chefs). You can never go wrong if you have passion, work hard and stay strong.”

Caroline Ncoko (47) - Junior sous chef at the President Hotel

Growing up in Gugulethu, Ncoko fell into her career of cooking because she had to make ends meet to feed her family. Now she is living her passion as a junior sous chef and is the longest standing employee at the President Hotel.

“When my father passed away his business deteriorated as there was nobody to assist. I had to leave school and get a job to support my mother and sisters. I struggled to find a job at first and was often turned away because either the position was male orientated or I was too young. I started working at the President Hotel on 1 December 1997, I was determined to do something with my life. 

"I have always been passionate about food so when I saw an opening in the kitchen at the President Hotel, I couldn’t have been more excited to put my application through.” 

She later studied a cooking course at The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in Constantia.

Having five sisters and one brother, Ncoko was never short of inspirational women. She now lives with her two daughters and her mother, and continues to strive for more.

“I believe in being strong, have faith within yourself and the skills you have learnt. Today there is no difference between a woman and a man, and what they can both achieve.”

In celebration of Women’s month, Ncoko wants to remind South African females that they are survivors. “We draw strength from each other - in order to be successful, we must empower one another. Women, let’s show leadership and leave our mark,” she urges.

Highly respected at The President Hotel, Ncoko - affectionately nicknamed Lolo - was awarded as employee of the month three times.

“I am very proud of the position I am currently in. I am responsible for a wide range of duties in the kitchen. I also manage the breakfast team, and train the staff who pursue careers like me, and who want to learn. 

"I am proud and excited as I get to guide them in the workplace, encouraging them to give it their all. I believe in giving back, especially because I was given the opportunity to learn and grow – I am happy to see the trainees evolve and step into managerial positions."

Kerry Kilpin (34) - Head chef at Bistro1682

The daughter of a pineapple farmer, Kilpin grew up on a farm just outside Bathurst in the Eastern Cape. Her love for cooking started at the tender age of 12.

"I was away at boarding school and on weekends I would come home and bake. This became a good source of pocket money."

The entrepreneur in her kicked in and she began selling cakes to school friends and the workers on the farm on payday.

"From a very young age I loved to bake and I knew that was the direction I would take. After school I went to study at Silwood Kitchen and very quickly realised my passion was in cooking not baking. 

"In my second year at Silwood I met Franck Dangereux and became my mentor for the next 12 years. I did my third year internship under his wing at La Colombe restaurant. The following year he promoted me to sous chef. In 2014 I was given the opportunity to head up Bistro 1682 and here I am."

Kilpin believes that if the kitchen is a woman's place in the home, why not in the working world?

"You need to have a thick skin, try not take things personally as that is always a woman's weak spot in the kitchen. Men can be really unkind. You will need to work harder to prove yourself but any good chef knows hard work will be noticed, it just may take a bit longer being a woman."

Her best advice to women who want a career in a professional kitchen is to spend some time in a real working kitchen first because the hours are long and the lifestyle is tough. If you are still interested go and study.

"Be patient! Practice, practice, practice. Perfection is the art to any great chef."

Andrea Bruce (24) – Head Pastry Chef at La Petite Colombe

Born and raised in Cape Town, Bruce developed a love for food when she was young but she was wasn't sure if a professional kitchen was for her. 

After school she threw caution to the wind and studied cooking at Silwood School of Cookery.

"I worked in a few kitchens around Cape Town and came to love how a kitchen runs. In that time I worked at La Colombe and despite being really nervous before I started (because I knew it was a male-dominated kitchen at the time) I ended up fitting in really well and loved it! 

"I was trained by Glen Williams, who was pastry chef at the time, and learnt to look at pastry from a completely new perspective."

 It was from then that she realised that pastry was her forte. After graduating from Silwood she worked at La Colombe permanently and then took a brief break and traveled overseas to work in the French Alps.

"I was asked to come back to La Colombe to take over running pastry from Glen. Since then its been a lot of hard work fitting into that new role and now I am working as Head Pastry chef at La Petite Colombe in Franschhoek."

Being a woman in a male dominated industry is not easy but Bruce says there is never a reason to feel intimidated.

"There is nothing in a kitchen that men can do, that women can’t. You need to prove that you can do anything that they can, and do it even better! You’ll have to work a little harder and make a point of standing your ground every now and again but as long as you have respect for others and what you are working with there is no reason to feel like you shouldn’t be working in that environment."

Growing up in a family surrounded by strong women helped catapult Bruce into realising her dreams at such a young age.

Her advice for women looking to become a pastry chef is to work hard and work clever.

"This goes for anyone who wants to work in a kitchen, hard work, attention to detail and a good attitude can get you very far. You’ll often have to brush things off. You can’t sweat the small stuff and take anything said or done in a kitchen too personally. As long as people can see you are willing to learn at any level and make a lasting impression, the rest will come easily after that."

Amy-Margaret Young (28) - Pastry Chef at Greenhouse Restaurant

For the last nine years Young has had the privilege of working at Greenhouse Restaurant at The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, which is one of the restaurants on the top 10 fine dining restaurants in the country.

Born in George, Young was raised in Cape Town and found a love for cooking when she was really young as well.

"I think the love of home economics in high school definitely convinced me to choose being a Chef as my career. I did a three-year course at Silwood kitchen and have been at Greenhouse ever since. 

"I went to an all-girls school and was permanently surrounded by strong successful woman who all supported each other and we were encouraged to be determined, never give up and not to let our gender affect our success."

Young says that even though women are the minority in the kitchen as long as you are hard working, dedicated and passionate about what you do there is no reason for you to be less respected and unacknowledged by the males in the kitchen.

"Sometimes you have to work harder for your opinions to be heard but never give up and keep on going, eventually your passion will be noticed. 

"The best advice for future chefs is to put in the hours and learn as much as you can from other pastry chefs in the industry while you are young. Pastry can be difficult at times but the best way to learn is from your mistakes. Never give up until you have perfected a recipe."

The highlights of her career was being promoted to Head Pastry Chef in 2012 and cooking dessert at the Eat Out awards in 2013, which was a challenge and achievement as well, as so many respected people in the industry tasted and judged her food.