Travelling chef Paula Nel has created a restful home that reflects her fascination with global cultures

South African chef Paula Nel is far too discreet to disclose who her celebrity clients are—suffice to say they’re some of the world’s most loved media, music and movie moguls. Nel spends up to three months at a stretch aboard her primary client’s private luxury yacht, shifting between the Mediterranean, and cities like Miami and Monaco, preparing elaborate menus together with a brigade of chefs.

When she’s not planning innovative ways to fulfil the gourmet desires of her clients, Nel is invariably plotting her next adventure. “I tend to get a month or two off every few months, which gives me enough time to get in a couple of trips before heading home to chill and catch up with family and friends,” says the chef. 

(Related: Home Tour: A Villa With Interiors Inspired by Zaha Hadid)

Her creative flair and passion for living a life less ordinary extends to her home—a double volume, loft-style apartment situated in the heart of Cape Town’s central business district. Since buying it five years ago, Nel has renovated the space twice. The first time she stripped the home of the former owner’s designs and brought in her choices of finishes and style—an understated nod to industrialism with varied hints at her nomadic lifestyle.

The most recent alteration is a result of her purchase of the apartment next door and the incorporation of the two spaces. “You can imagine that living in a cabin for a significant part of the year means I fantasise about a beautiful and big bedroom space, so the new extension to my home is almost entirely made up of my bedroom, bathroom and dressing room,” she laughs.

(Related: How To Decorate Like The British)

While her home is brimming with beautiful large furniture items—ranging from a magnificent worn-leather Chesterfield sofa to a central kitchen counter with its gleaming Carrara marble top—it is the varied collections of global treasures and interesting artworks that are instant focal pieces in her abode.

From a curious collection of Egyptian scarabs from North Africa, framed vintage botanical art prints picked up in New York, a gallery wall of LP covers to a much-loved taxidermy armadillo, these items add charm to her home, with history and tales to tell. And of course, it’s her talent for perfect display that makes them all the more beguiling. As can be expected of a chef used to painting plates with her culinary creations, there is no haphazardness to her collections. Nel recalls a happy childhood spent exploring and searching for natural treasures with her geologist grandfather—early years that no doubt set this adventurous soul on her collecting journey.

“I think my next career choice might well involve me helping other people to tell their stories in their spaces,” quips the multi-hyphenate, who also offers interior consulting services on the sidelines.

(Related: 7 New Stores To Explore For Decor Inspiration)

Though her home is aesthetically complex, the space oozes calm, thanks to the monochromatic palette she has chosen to work with. Elements like the mottled cement screed floors, painted brick walls, galvanised steel and faded timber that collectively form a textured canvas for her fascinating finds.

“Life can be quite hectic on board a boat—although I love my travels in between stints, I absolutely love coming home for extended periods too, I love how relaxed I feel here,” says Nel, who has been known to fly between international destinations clutching her latest priceless find on her lap.

(Related: The Swedish Art of Lagom: Secrets To A Cosy Bedroom)

Of course, of prime importance for any professional chef ’s home is a hardworking kitchen space—and since her latest renovation it really has become the apartment’s hub.

“As much as I love the look of open plan kitchens, I really liked the idea of a slick butler’s pantry and scullery where dirty pots and pans can be stashed out of sight while me and my guests get on with the business of catching up over plenty of wine and food,” shares the chef. “I’ve been on the road for 15 years so it’s the knowledge of this space that keeps me feeling connected to home.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that Nel isn’t ever in a rush to build on and layer her space that makes her home feel so cosy. “I’ve almost always got something in my mind’s eye that needs sorting—maybe it’s a specific corner that feels like it needs something or a spot that is looking for some art,” she adds. There is a place for everything and everything has a place. And for a frequent traveler, that can only be something wonderful to come home to.

(Related: Home Tour: A Designer's Edgy Apartment in South Africa)

Photography: Warren Heath

This story was adapted from Singapore Tatler Homes Aug-Sept 2018

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.