If you know South Africa, then you know how much they love their braai. Barbequing is the way of life in this part of the world, so when ASH opened its doors in 2016 there wasn’t much shock that it became one of the most talked about spots in Cape Town. The restaurant at first glance seems dark and charcoal dusted, with a bit of masculine modernity to it; but like its namesake Ash Heeger, it’s enchanting and without formality. We joined Ash and her team for a meal one warm summer afternoon and had a chance to hear about the environment she wanted to create for her staff and customers when opening her first restaurant.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
It’s really out-of-the-ordinary to have a delicious meal before service in this industry, there are always excuses not to do it: no time, no budget, laziness It’s so important yet is often overlooked, and everyone is so worried about their customers that they forget their own. You will get chastised for making a terrible staff meal in our kitchen. If I’m here, which is pretty much every night I’ll make them do it again the next day and the next until it’s really good. We rotate the responsibility between chefs and I cook the staff meal once a week. If I can’t cook a staff meal I can’t really expect these guys to either. “If it’s Ash cooking we usually get blown out of the water,” says Mark Finnemore, “We pray for it. She puts a lot of herself into it.”
BUILD YOUR OWN
Usually staff meals are really grim and bland and full of starch, so it can’t properly set you up for a 5-hour service. We cook 2 staff meals a day- breakfast and dinner. For breakfast, it’s a big fry up, porridges with muesli, or fruit salad…the lower GI the better, because it keeps them going. We’ll eat at about 11am and then 5pm again. We usually do a “build your own” meal like build your own tacos, or pho, or sometimes we’ll make a massive curry with iced tea on the side. We switch it up every now and then, especially if it’s someone’s birthday we’ll branch out and do a couple courses. It’s nice to make these guys feel special. They aren’t super wealthy and the budgets that they live on aren’t big, so this is a treat.
There was a lot of time to conceptualize the restaurant during construction and we really wanted this to be the style of the staff meal. I didn’t want it to be served when they were standing around working and boiling potatoes. I really wanted them to sit down and engage with each other. Things got a little crazy when we first opened and it kind of fell away for a bit. We actually had to stop and start again, because everyone was eating while they were working and no one was talking to each other. Now obviously, it’s a different story. The paradigm shift from that to now, those guys are super happy. It’s a tangible impact, it’s huge.
“The whole team gets on really well, it’s different vibes at this restaurant,” adds Matthew Ferris.
We’ve got a restaurant WhatsApp group that’s been blowing up with photos the staff takes of the food which gets funny. And I love boasting about our staff meals on Instagram.
TAKING CARE OF EACH OTHER
We work doubles every day, but the guys take 3 days off every week. They work really hard and for a lot of them this is the best meal they get, so we really want to take care of them. Every night we have a staff taxi take them home and drop them off at their doors. It’s a bit treacherous getting around here. The taxis can be expensive and we don’t have to do it but that makes a big difference. It was very important for me to know that they were getting home safe. Especially the girls.
MEAT WINE AND ASH
The restaurant houses 3 entities: Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants, Publik Wine, and ASH. People can walk in and have a glass of wine at the Publik bar, or buy some biltong from Frankie’s or sit down and have something from all three if they come to have a meal at ASH. The shared ideals are all the same, and the philosophy at ASH is eco, sustainable, local, and free range.
I GO BY ASHLEIGH NOW
The kitchen is open which brings the customers into the space, and really makes them part of the experience. We spent a lot of money to have these special charcoal grills to use in the back, and people want to see that. This particular grill is from Spain and called a Josper; I spent three years cooking at a London restaurant on it and loved the flavor texture and color that came from it- whether it was meat or fruit or vegetables. So when we decided we were going to open, I knew I had to get one. And obviously the braai culture is so South African, so it’s connected to this country. And obviously, it relates to the name of the place as well, which I kind of regret... I’ve started introducing myself as Ashleigh now which I’ve never done in my whole life.
Ramen with mushrooms, bok choy, egg, bean sprouts and bone marrow broth.
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