Ash rules the grill

Mandela Day volunteers received a welcome surprise when they paid a visit to Iris House Children’s Hospice in Bellville last week.

The “gourmet grub” they were treated to was made by none other than the organisation’s own celebrity employee, Ashley-William (“Ash”) van Heerden from Manenberg.

The self-taught Van Heerden (25) is currently starring in television cooking competition My Kitchen Rules South Africa (MKRSA) with his cousin Christin “Chris” Daniels (36), who lives in Blackheath.

With their cooking roots and their hearts firmly in Manenberg, the duo’s inspirational tale and sizzling dynamic have had many a viewer coming back for second helpings of the show.

Van Heerden, who has been working at the hospice in Bellville for two years, laughs off the “celeb” tag. “That’s the furthest thing I would want to be,” he says. “I’m quite cool with staying in the background.”

Van Heerden is one of those people often seen in the background, helping as many others as he can. Not only does he work at a hospice for children, but he also moved back home to Manenberg where he helps with his autistic nephew, Connor.

At Iris House he is one of the stars in the “Imagination Station” where he uses his acting and storytelling abilities to help the children with communication and literacy skills. This is a skill Van Heerden learnt when working and studying via Disney in the United States.

His overseas travels have had a big influence on him and he hopes to bring flavours and techniques from across the world back to his beloved Manenberg.

He has a particular affinity for Asian food, he says, but the tastes and dishes of his youth will always be a starring item on the menu of his life.

In his house, his speciality is the tomato bredie he learnt to cook while growing up.

It’s this homegrown cooking culture he shares with teammate and cousin, Chris.

They both grew up in the same two-bedroom house in Manenberg. Here their grandmother, Beatrice Daniels, would feed them all on a limited budget. There would sometimes be up to eight people in the house, all needing something to eat.

Her passion for food had a lasting impression on them. “She instilled in us a love for the kitchen and making food a love affair,” Van Heerden says.

This love for making good food, as well as his inherent need to help others, is a killer cooking combination.

Van Heerden’s journey to MKRSA happened on a whim. He heard an ad for the show while driving in January and decided to call Chris and enter.

Since the programme first aired, his life has been quite different from before, with people recognising him and coming to talk to him. At first he was wary, especially since you can’t really control how you’re portrayed on reality TV, but says he’s been blown away by the positive response.

People have come up to him, saying they are from the same background and how he’s inspired them. This has been a humbling experience.

Even though he wants to continue working in the special needs sector, he also wants to explore service through food, he says.

One of his projects in the pipeline is hosting a “glitz and glam” dinner in Manenberg for mothers who didn’t finish their matric.