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Food talks with Chef Sepial Shim

Chef and businesswoman Sepial Shim creates plates of South Korean food that’s as good for your heart as it is for your health. 

Lining the walls of Sepial Shim’s workspaces are jars of garlic, ginseng, tea, baby radish, grapes, peaches and cucumber fermenting in their own specific concoction. One day, when they’re ready, they’ll pop onto the menu of either her restaurant Sepial’s Kitchen, her market stall, her workshop space The Fermentary or her dumpling joint The Ugly Dumpling. If you’d told her five years ago that she’d be running four South Korean food businesses in Cape Town, she might have laughed. But also, maybe not – she admits she finds it hard to say no to an adventure and a challenge.   

Did you always have dreams of working in the food industry?  

Food only came into my life recently. My mother never allowed me to cook – she wanted me to have a career, and not stay at home to look after a family like her. After working in PR and marketing in South Korea, I realised I was suffering from burnout.  

My brain didn’t function well, so I spent time at home baking. I shared the food with my neighbours, and I enjoyed that. Around that time my son stopped studying business and wanted to do something practical like cooking.   

I had to drop him off and fetch him there every day, so I thought: why not join the classes? I ended up enjoying it more than he did! I had already done all the silly things in my 20s, so I could focus, and it was good for me. Cooking became my therapy. Now, my son helps me to run the business. While working with family is never easy, there are more pros than cons.  

What do you enjoy most about working in food?  

I never planned to have so many things on the go! Lockdown changed the business a lot, and I had to find ways to create work for my staff as some doors closed and new opportunities came our way. I couldn’t really say no.  

We started with a small place in Salt River and we still have those old regulars visiting us now. They feel like family to me. People really enjoy the Korean Fried Chicken, which means we cook chicken like crazy! It sometimes means we’re too busy to try other things, but they can have as much Korean Fried Chicken as they want because it also supports my other projects, like The Fermentary.  

Why is fermentation so close to your heart?  

It’s one of the great strengths of South Korean food and is really beneficial for everyone. It doesn’t cost much but the result is wonderful. Since the economy isn’t great and our climate is changing, fermentation can help people create something that is amazing out of very common foods, like cabbages, so that everyone can have something healthy that isn’t boring.  

It also reduces food waste. I really want to contribute to South Africa, and I hope I can do that by sharing my knowledge of fermentation to help the public and make fermented products more accessible. It’s also very exciting! You are never 100% sure how it will turn out because there are so many factors you cannot control. I sometimes even pray for good results – but that’s the beauty of it, like our lives. We are just humble before Mother Nature.  

“Fermentation can help people create something that is amazing out of foods that are quite common, like cabbages, so that everyone can have something healthy that isn’t boring.”  

What is your cooking philosophy?  

I’m not an amazing philosopher or somebody who can talk big words but simply put: I like to serve good food and make people feel good. I believe that if somebody feels good about themselves, then they will have a positive energy. They will take that home with them and make their life positive. Then, I hope the world can get better – even just a tiny bit.  

What do you enjoy outside of the kitchen?  

At the moment, my life is all about working so there’s not much time spent away from it. My work is now done more in front of the computer writing emails, dealing with numbers, and so on. That is actually where I spend much of my time, rather than in the kitchen.   

If you visit Makers Landing, you’ll probably watch me doing paperwork in a corner behind a glass door. I hope to retire soon and spend my days stroking my neighbour’s cat! When I’m not working, I’m probably reading something – there are too many things too read!   

I enjoy articles about new findings in nutrition and cooking, as well as the history of food. The more I know about food history, the more connected I feel. The world is now created by exchanges, which I believe is more interesting than trying to be ‘authentic’ to regional cuisines.  

Quick-fire questions  

Favourite South African ingredients?
I like to use rose geranium and buchu to make drinks because they are so unique and versatile. But I really love braai salt! I take it back to South Korea as gifts – they say it works well on the Korean barbecue, too!  

Best meal to make at home?
Lamb chops on the braai (although I make my son cook it), served with quick soy sauce, pickled onion, rice and a side of my kimchi. No other sauce necessary.  

Sweet or savoury? 
I like a little sweet with my savoury, and a little savoury with my sweet.  

Best cookbooks?
The Noma Guide to Fermentation by David Zilber and René Redzepi and The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. The recipes are so exact and include lesser-known food pairings.  

Essential kitchen tool?
A good, sharp knife that’s maintained every day.  

Follow @sepialskitchen for news on Sepial’s workshops, new dishes and special projects.  


Words by: Christi Nortier
Photographs: Ashleigh Frans  


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