It’s a Thursday lunchtime and I find myself travelling east out of downtown Cape Town on the premise of finding the city’s newly dubbed hottest neighbourhood, Woodstock. But my mission doesn’t end at hunting down hip new urban hangouts. I’m en route to meet trailblazing chef Luke Dale-Roberts at his restaurant, The Test Kitchen, one of South Africa’s finest hard-to-get-into dining hotspots since opening in 2010. And I’m pretty chuffed about it considering his global trendsetting reputation and inspiring collection of culinary credentials.
Before arriving on South Africa’s fine dining scene, British-born Luke trained in classical French cuisine in prestigious restaurants in both Switzerland and England, before heading to Asia for a five-year stint, spending time in Tokyo and launching several hugely successful restaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.
In 2006 he landed in Cape Town, becoming executive chef at La Colombe at Constantia Uitsig, a restaurant which he took to No.12 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010, by adding his signature Asian twist to its venerable French menu.
While cutting his teeth becoming a world-renowned chef at La Colombe, Luke had a side line selling eggs Benedict and röstis from a stall at the local ‘Neighbourgoods’ market, which set-up shop every Saturday in the courtyard of an old biscuit mill in Woodstock. Falling in love with its shabby-chic charm and keen to put his own restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list, Luke opened his first project, The Test Kitchen, in a converted warehouse unit there in 2010, followed by a less formal tapasstyle restaurant concept, The Pot Luck Club, right next door, in 2011.
The next three years proved a whirlwind of dizzying success. Having already been awarded Chef of the Year (2011) and Best Restaurant for two consecutive years (2012, 2013) at the Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards, Luke quickly gained global recognition when he was named Cacao Barry’s One to Watch as part of the World’s 50 Best in 2013.
Looking for a new challenge, he took his tapas-style concept at The Pot Luck Club to Switzerland in 2013, operating it as a pop-up in Verbier and attracting attention from celebrities like Pixie Geldof and Lily Allen. Surprisingly, in between all this, Luke also found time to carry out several renovations on his small-scale culinary empire and turn Woodstock into the cool urban hotspot and foodie mecca that it’s known as today.
“Everyone thought I was a lunatic when I first decided to open a restaurant here,” Luke tells me, reliving a few of his earliest memories as a solo restaurateur. Hard to believe as I look around, Luke tells me that not so long ago Woodstock was perceived as a dangerous place, avoided by both Capetonians and tourists. Today, however, it’s awash with offbeat cafes and design-led shops touting their wares to a fashionable clientele, all of whom descended upon the area the moment it started attracting attention for its colourful streets, colonial-style cottages and rugged charm. This was coincidentally timed with Luke’s arrival to the neighbourhood.
Most recently, Luke tells me, he’s expanded The Test Kitchen and moved The Pot Luck Club to the top of an old silo building, a stone’s throw away from its original spot. With 360 degree views of Cape Town’s harbour and most iconic landmark, Table Mountain, it’s no wonder The Pot Luck Club - with its simple, produce-led food and stunning location - has become a popular hangout for Cape Town’s glitterati, yet still remains secondary to its bigger, bolder and decidedly fine-tuned older sister, The
“When we first opened The Test Kitchen there was no toilet inside, or air conditioning,” Luke tells me, as we reach The Test Kitchen’s front door. I’m astonished. Even from the outside I can tell it’s now the epitome of rustic chic, its edgy silver-plated name-sign mounted on the paint-washed wall, next to its shiny glass-fronted entrance. “I’ve done three renovations in the last three years to make it what it is now, and touch wood, we’ve been completely booked out since the day we opened,” he says with
Stepping inside The Test Kitchen’s dining room, which at 12pm is already full, it’s not hard to see why. Bespoke crockery and crystal goblets meet industrial-looking brushed-steel tables, contemporary artwork and custom-made, hand-stitched leather seats, which Luke sources from local carpenters’ workshops. It’s fine dining at its best: pared back yet incredibly stylish without any of the pretence that usually characterises up-market venues. “I make good food fine dining, fun,” Luke tells me, clinching the relaxed, urban vibe he’s managed to execute to perfection.
Taking centre stage is the Kitchen Bar, where patrons can watch the kitchen camaraderie between Luke and his team, while they turn out beautifully plated dishes.
Delighted that I’ll be in the front row of all the action, I’m handed the lunchtime Discovery Menu and watch in awe as the 20-strong kitchen team chant “yes, chef” in unison to the orders of executive chef Ivor Jones, Luke’s right-hand man who oversees the kitchen in his absence.
At a glance, the Discovery Menu - a lighter five-course version of The Test Kitchen’s nine-course evening Gourmand Menu, which comes with two dishes to choose from per course and the option of wine pairing - is a testament to Luke’s experience abroad. Like Cape Town, it’s a melting pot of different cultures and cuisines, from Luke’s British-Swiss upbringing to his time in South East Asia and the Far East.
The first dish I’m set to taste is pickled fish - ceviche, lightly curried dressing, BBQ carrots and ras el hanout honeycomb. The next, grilled scallops served with a braised scallop dressing and a selection of braised and raw shiitake mushrooms, is reminiscent of Luke’s time in Tokyo.
I also sample Luke’s foie gras - salted cured peach, “braaied” (a typical South African method of cooking similar to barbecuing) meringue and pistachio; a real showstopper, which I’m told is the newest addition to his menu. “A dish like that takes about two or three months to get to a complete stage,” Luke tells me when
I ask about its conception. “It started off with a friend of mine coming back from Madagascar with a lot of vanilla and us eating foie gras with it. I love rose so I did a combination of rose-cured foie gras with vanilla and rose-cured peaches. The final element is the meringue, barbecued with a lot of salt.”
The whole thing comes out tasting like, in Luke’s words, “Christmas gammon but with a rosy, vanillary edge,” and sets an unattainably high benchmark for the next two dishes: quail served with liver and salt-cured pineapple and the pork belly with parsley-pressed apples, wild rosemary infused honey, blue cream cheese and crackling. Somehow, they manage to arouse the same excited curiosity within me as the last.
After a light palate cleanser (a dish entitled ‘Green’, which perfectly captures the smell of freshly cut grass), the next dish to arrive is the pan-fried line-caught yellowtail fish (which I learn is the local eco-diner’s number one choice) and my dinner date’s choice, the pan seared springbok, which comes served with springbok skilpadjies, a traditional South African dish of lamb’s liver and kidneys but with Luke’s modern twist.
If I’m a little disappointed by the time dessert appears (a rhubarb rose terrine with roasted strawberry butter, clotted cream and rose granite), it’s only because its theatrical arrival - it comes served on a hotrod-inspired Gueridon trolley, which sparks curiosity from other diners - marks the end of an incredible meal. But then there’s the gratifying task of grilling Luke on his finetuned food philosophy to look forward to, too, and I start off by asking him where the name ‘The Test Kitchen’ came from. “When I left La Colombe I wanted to do a 16-seater restaurant, which opened Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The rest of the time I was going to test out new dishes,” he says. Having invested too much money and realising the weight of the age-old advice, “put bums on seats”, Luke later decided to open for lunch with a simple three-item menu and a five-item dinner offering. As the hype grew, The Test Kitchen evolved and that’s where it is today: a restaurant offering seating for 60 covers
and the option of a five-course Discovery Menu or nine-course Gourmand Menu, with a huge global following and a place on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (No. 61).
Having sampled Luke’s dishes, I know that evolution, experimentation and fl avour lie at the heart of his cuisine. But being served line-caught yellowtail, I wonder if sustainability plays its part, too? “I believe in all those things, sustainability, low carbon footprint, supporting local producers, but I don’t make it my mantra or the thing that defines me and my food,” he says. “I definitely use ingredients that are sustainable [over] something that’s not, but I will use something that isn’t. For instance, I use foie gras from France on my menu because I love the taste, even though I know it’s probably got a huge carbon footprint. Taste always comes first,” he says with conviction.
My first impressions confirmed; taste takes precedence in Luke’s kitchen, where flavour-less food is banished by his strict, impact-led culinary creed. To emphasise his point he tells me that he makes his entire kitchen staff taste a dish before it goes on the menu. “All my dishes should be immediately delicious. If a dish doesn’t blow their
minds, it doesn’t go on the menu.”
Having had an immensely productive last three years, when I ask Luke what he has planned for the future, he doesn’t allude to much, apart from building upon the success he’s achieved so far. But as I expect from this hugely creative character, he’s always got something in the pipeline and lets me in on a few of his plans for The Test Kitchen’s menu. “I think my food is a result of where I was brought up in Sussex, my heritage - half Swiss, half English - where I trained, where I travelled, where I worked and where I am today. I’d like to do a menu called My Life and Travels one day.”
With the lack of a Michelin Guide in South Africa, Luke is once again preparing for the annual 50 Best Restaurant Awards, which take place every April. Luke tells me he’d be surprised if The Test Kitchen doesn’t make it into the top 50 of the list this year, a statement I couldn’t agree with more.
“Looking back to last year and the year before that, we were good,” says Luke. And from where I’m sitting, it looks like things are set to get even better.
Photography by Michael Le Grange