Chef to Watch: Ash Valenzuela-Heeger, Chef Owner of The Riverine Rabbit

Alex South

Alex South


Combining South African roots and flavours with seasonal British produce, Ash Valenzuela-Heeger Chef Owner of The Riverine Rabbit, is championing the city of Birmingham through her refreshing modern takes on fine dining.

Originally from South Africa, Ash began her career at the age of sixteen washing pots and working part time as a prep chef on a line in a local restaurant, before enrolling at cookery college after finishing secondary school.

After taking part in a variety of internships, Ash’s path crossed with Luke Dale Roberts, an English chef based in South Africa, who helped mentor and guide her through the early stages of her hospitality journey.

Describing this stage in her career, Ash said: "I worked my way up the ranks from a student cook to a commis, all the way up to a sous chef. At that point I was really young, I was 22, I felt for me he was the best chef in the country at the time and I didn't really want to work with anyone else in South Africa."

During this time, Luke recommended that Ash should work a year in the UK to gain more experience, with Ash shortly moving over and spending three years in the UK, before returning back to South Africa.

In 2013, at the age of 25, Ash opened her first restaurant in South Africa, which remained open until 2020 when Ash decided that she wanted to relocate back to the UK, choosing Birmingham as her home.

Since moving to Birmingham, Ash has held positions at one Michelin-starred Carters of Moseley, owned by Brad and Holly Carter, and then opened her own pop-up The Riverine Rabbit.

Describing what it was like working with Brad, Ash said: "I was really fresh off the boat when I started working with Brad and Holly, what they gave me was a really good platform to get to know the West Midlands in a way that only Brad can show you and it's what made me fall in love with Birmingham. They just really welcomed me with open arms."


Ash’s style of cooking represents her unique experience growing up in South Africa and relocating to the UK, and one that has evolved over the years as she continues her hospitality journey.

Describing her style in more detail, Ash said: "I've got that good base of old school French cooking technique with loads of South African flavours in there. My main focus has always been produce based, I mean all chefs say that don't they, but if you've got great products then your job is really easy."

Highlighting her extensive background and the changes she’s made to her style over time, Ash added: "My cooking has changed a lot in the way that I'm classically trained, I have a Michelin background, I've worked in some of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, and my food at least  in the last year or so has taken a turn where it's a lot less serious. It's a lot more whimsical, it's a lot more fun, and it doesn't take itself too seriously, which I'm finding really enjoyable."

When asked about her favorite ingredients, Ash explained she enjoys cooking with seafood and using the rich range of British produce available to her.

"Spring is my favourite season, the season that we're going in to now. I love the abundance of ingredients that we have this time of the year. What I also enjoy is when we've got more challenging months of the year, when we can't get the things that we want and they're not at your fingertips, or you're working on a budget, and you can't afford the A5 wagyu or the caviar or whatever. I love taking ingredients that are seen as a little bit more humble, and making them great," Ash revealed.


In September 2022 Ash decided to reopen The Riverine Rabbit in Birmingham, after closing her original South African variation of the restaurant in 2020, and has since held a number of different pop-ups, venue takeovers and collaboration across Birmingham and the West Midlands.

At it’s core The Riverine Rabbit’s menu is full of South African flavour from Ash’s background living and working in Cape Town, utilising a wide range of British ingredients and seasonal produce.

The result of this beautiful pairing is a modern underground delivery, which reflects her adoration for England’s second city.

Explaining the differences to The Riverine Rabbit in Birmingham, compared to its past South African venue, Ash said: "It's an iteration of the restaurant I had in South Africa. It's the same name, it's the same ethos but things have changed. You can't copy and paste something from the tip of Africa into the middle of the UK and expect it to yield the same results; we're focused on working with people who we see eye to eye with, that have the same ethos and mission statement that we have, that are fun."

She added: "While we spend this time looking around, these places are all in areas where we'd love to plant some roots down. At the moment, everything that we do is based on where we do it."


Whether it’s from her experiences as a chef, moving between the UK and South Africa, or her plans to secure a bricks and mortar venue, Ash is a determined chef eager to stand out and give people an insight into her vision of what hospitality should look like whilst championing younger chefs in the industry.

"Most restauranteurs need to take a good hard look at the business itself. Being a restauranteur, being someone that does the hiring and the firing in a business, you have to consolidate what you're offering your employees," she explained.

Talking more about what restaurants and managers can do specifically for their staaff, Ash added: "Are you offering them a fair wage? Are there benefits to this? Is there a mental health care plan in the employment plan? Because you have to offer those things and you should. There's no two ways about it."

Praising the hard work being undertaken to make hospitality more diverse, and encourage a greater gender balance, Ash said: "We've moved forward exponentially in a very short amount of time if you look at 10, 20 years ago, at what the industry looked like. I think things have moved along massively. I do think that singling out the hospitality industry as one that needs to focus more on female-led businesses is kind of unfair, considering almost every industry in any business sector should be pushing for those goals."

She added: "The younger generation that are coming into the ranks will be the shot callers not too long from now, and that generation I find is a lot more forward thinking, a lot more accepting, a lot more brave and I think no matter what the direction that we're heading in is, it's a good one in that sense."

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Alex South

Alex South

Editor 1st June 2023

Chef to Watch: Ash Valenzuela-Heeger, Chef Owner of The Riverine Rabbit