4 dynamic female chefs who should be on every Cape Town foodie's radar

The Mother City is famously home to multiple award-winning chefs, but there are also many stellar cooks with blue-chip résumés to seek out in the city

01 September 2019 - 00:10
By Allison Foat
The 'Fried Chicken on Fridays' from Yen's Vietnamese Street Food.
Image: Allison Foat The 'Fried Chicken on Fridays' from Yen's Vietnamese Street Food.


Yen Nguyen made her first lunch-to-order at 15 after a construction crew working across from her house in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, knocked on her mother's door asking if they could buy whatever it was that smelt so good. Nguyen was at the stove that day and the moment marked the start of her journey into food. 

She moved to Cape Town in 2006 after meeting her South African husband Philip Eksteen, although she didn't pursue a career as a chef until much later. Bored by her business ventures and frustrated that she'd been unable to find authentic Vietnamese cuisine to her liking anywhere in the Mother City, she decided it was time to do something about it.

Chef Yen Nguyen.
Image: Allison Foat Chef Yen Nguyen.

A meeting with entrepreneur-come-market-manager Sheryl Ozinsky led to her opening her eponymous stall at the weekends-only Oranjezicht City Farm Market in Granger Bay.

On a strong trading day Nguyen has been known to plate 120 bowls and she often works solo. Queues form early for traditional dishes like Pho Xao, made with sautéed prawns, shallots and noodles, swirled around in soy and Sriracha sauce (chilli peppers, sugar, garlic, distilled vinegar and salt), served with peanuts and coriander.

Her No 1 dish to cook is Pho Bo, a hearty beef bone broth dished up with rice noodles, slivers of rare beef, bean sprouts, basil, onion, Hoisin sauce and sriracha. "It's Vietnam in a bowl," she says.

She loves the customer engagement that happens organically as people watch her cook.

• Find Yen's Vietnamese Street Food at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market, Granger Bay, V&A Waterfront.


Carmen Rueda has always favoured the sweeter side of the kitchen. As head pastry chef and consultant at Coco Safar, a retro-chic French-styled café in Sea Point, she leads the talented team responsible for the restaurant's superb sweet and savoury patisserie selection.

From raspberry-rose-litchi croissants and orange-rooibos-cranberry scones to fancier occasion-cakes, her gateaux have been hailed as couture pâtisserie.

Born and raised in a small village in Spain, Rueda studied to be a chef in Madrid, did her classic pastry training in Barcelona and moved to France to hone those skills in Perpignan with one-time world pastry champion Olivier Bajard.

Chef Carmen Rueda of Coco Safar.
Image: Allison Foat Chef Carmen Rueda of Coco Safar.
A selection of chocolate bonbons from Coco Safar.
Image: Allison Foat A selection of chocolate bonbons from Coco Safar.

From there she accrued serious cred working alongside some of the world's finest, most notably Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Catalonia and with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Berkshire in the UK, where her last gig entailed heading up the pastry section in his experimental kitchen. At one stage, those two establishments held six Michelin stars between them. It's no wonder she has a quiet confidence when it comes to experimentation.

Rueda's speciality and first love is chocolate, and she has met with great success in competitions like the World Chocolate Masters in 2017, where she was placed in the top eight.

She has just returned from Vietnam, where she was on a quest to find new ways to work with high-quality sôcôla (chocolate in Vietnamese). As part of her research into the making of chocolate bars, she met with farmers at a cocoa plantation and connected with the artisans at Maison Marou in Saigon, a specialist bean-to-bar factory that champions additive-free methods and products.

A recent offering at Coco Safar and one bound to benefit from her recent choc adventures is the dessert bar experience, where several micro dishes are prepped and plated in front of guests and paired with craft cocktails developed by in-house mixologist Marshall Siavash.

The aim is to take diners on a culinary trip around the world - a world of "innovating, creating emotions, sharing knowledge and feelings", says Rueda.

Find Coco Sofar at Artem Galleria, Sea Point. Call 021-433-1336.


After studying engineering and dabbling in the film industry and NGO sector, Sepial Shim felt she was on the brink of burnout and made the call to move her family from Seoul to Cape Town for a gentler lifestyle. That was 17 years ago, and she hasn't looked back.

Her foray into food started only three years ago with one year spent training at Silwood and three weeks spent between The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

Chef Sepial Shim and her colleagues.
Image: Allison Foat Chef Sepial Shim and her colleagues.

Shim opened her restaurant, Sepial's Kitchen, seven months ago in the cool Salt Orchard precinct in Woodstock. The intimate 16-seat eatery touts an Asian-inspired menu that caters to vegans, diabetics and celiacs and everything can be changed up to accommodate carnivores.

Bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish.
Image: Allison Foat Bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish.

Her pièce de resistance is the bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish served with warm black rice combined with barley and lentils, topped with strips of potato, pickled daikon, onion, baby marrow, fried egg, seaweed and carrots and garnished with homemade gochujang sauce and spice oil.

One of the most in-demand side dishes is the kimchi, (salted and fermented vegetables), so much so that it's bottled for sale and is the focus of one of the weekly workshops on offer.

With co-chefs Amanda Nomzamo Seti and Yalezwa Snaigo, Shim's formidable all-girl team is flying.

Find Sepial's Kitchen at A1 Salt Orchard, Briar Rd, Salt River. Call 087-702-4505.


When Abigail Mbalo reached the top six in the 2014 season of MasterChef SA, she reckoned it was time for a change.

After almost two decades as a dental technician, the vivacious Gugulethu-born chef reinvented herself completely, starting with an events food truck and expanding into her 4Roomed eKasi Culture, a food and lifestyle concept space in Khayelitsha, where Abigail puts a twist on hearty traditional Xhosa cuisine.

Chef Abigail Mbalo.
Image: Allison Foat Chef Abigail Mbalo.

"My cooking reflects my upbringing and reminds me of my late mother and good times spent around the communal table," says Mbalo whose food is very popular with tourists.

For locals, 4Roomed eKasi Culture conjures nostalgia and is about eating culturally true food that's been given a new lease of life. Take the mngqusho or samp, made from crushed dried corn kernels and often served sweet with milk and sugar, or with gravy as a savoury side dish. Mbalol's version is made with coconut cream and tarragon, comfort food at its best.

What bumped her up on MasterChef SA was her mleqwa (chicken), duck and turkey terrine, with a row of quail's eggs down the centre and served with an orange reduction. The spongy butternut squares made with mielie meal and nutmeg and garnished with truffle oil are like heaven in a cube, and good for you too.

Vegetable curry with butternut squares.
Image: Allison Foat Vegetable curry with butternut squares.

Weighing in on Mbalo's innovative approach to age-old recipes, MasterChef SA judge Pete Goffe-Wood said: "Abigail was one of the most creative contestants that season with an eye for beautiful plating and always thinking outside the box."

Visit 4Roomed eKasi Culture at A 605 Makabeni Road, Khayelitsha. Call 076-157-3177.