It’s a Thursday lunchtime and I find myselftravelling east out of downtown Cape Town on the premiseof finding the city’s newly dubbed hottest neighbourhood,Woodstock. But my mission doesn’t end at hunting downhip new urban hangouts. I’m en route to meet trailblazingchef Luke Dale-Roberts at his restaurant, The Test Kitchen,one of South Africa’s finest hard-to-get-into dining hotspotssince opening in 2010. And I’m pretty chuffed about it considering his globaltrendsetting 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 inboth Switzerland and England, before heading to Asia for a five-yearstint, spending time in Tokyo and launching several hugely successfulrestaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

In 2006 he landed in Cape Town, becoming executive chef at LaColombe at Constantia Uitsig, a restaurant which he took to No.12 on TheWorld’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010, by adding his signature Asiantwist to its venerable French menu.

While cutting his teeth becoming a world-renowned chef at LaColombe, Luke had a side line selling eggs Benedict and röstis froma stall at the local ‘Neighbourgoods’ market, which set-up shop everySaturday in the courtyard of an old biscuit mill in Woodstock. Falling inlove with its shabby-chic charm and keen to put his own restaurant on theWorld’s 50 Best list, Luke opened his first project, The Test Kitchen, in aconverted warehouse unit there in 2010, followed by a less formal tapasstylerestaurant concept, The Pot Luck Club, right next door, in 2011.

The next three years proved a whirlwind of dizzying success. Havingalready been awarded Chef of the Year (2011) and Best Restaurant fortwo consecutive years (2012, 2013) at the Eat Out DStv Food NetworkRestaurant Awards, Luke quickly gained global recognition when he wasnamed Cacao Barry’s One to Watch as part of the World’s 50 Best in2013.

Looking for a new challenge, he took his tapas-style concept at The PotLuck Club to Switzerland in 2013, operating it as a pop-up in Verbier andattracting attention from celebrities like Pixie Geldof and Lily Allen.Surprisingly, in between all this, Luke also found time to carry out severalrenovations on his small-scale culinary empire and turn Woodstock intothe 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 andmoved The Pot Luck Club to the top of an old silo building, a stone’sthrow away from its original spot. With 360 degree views of Cape Town’sharbour and most iconic landmark, Table Mountain, it’s no wonder ThePot Luck Club – with its simple, produce-led food and stunning location -has become a popular hangout for Cape Town’s glitterati, yet still remainssecondary to its bigger, bolder and decidedly fine-tuned older sister, The
Test Kitchen.

“When we first opened The Test Kitchen there was no toilet inside, orair 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 ofrustic chic, its edgy silver-plated name-sign mounted on the paint-washedwall, next to its shiny glass-fronted entrance. “I’ve done three renovationsin the last three years to make it what it is now, and touch wood, we’vebeen completely booked out since the day we opened,” he says with
satisfaction.

Stepping inside The Test Kitchen’s dining room, which at 12pm isalready full, it’s not hard to see why. Bespoke crockery and crystalgoblets meet industrial-looking brushed-steel tables, contemporaryartwork and custom-made, hand-stitched leather seats, which Lukesources from local carpenters’ workshops. It’s fine dining at its best:pared back yet incredibly stylish without any of the pretence thatusually characterises up-market venues. “I make good food finedining, fun,” Luke tells me, clinching the relaxed, urban vibe he’smanaged to execute to perfection.

Taking centre stage is the Kitchen Bar, where patrons canwatch 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’mhanded the lunchtime Discovery Menu and watch in awe asthe 20-strong kitchen team chant “yes, chef” in unison to theorders of executive chef Ivor Jones, Luke’s right-hand man whooversees the kitchen in his absence.

At a glance, the Discovery Menu – a lighter five-course versionof The Test Kitchen’s nine-course evening Gourmand Menu,which comes with two dishes to choose from per course andthe option of wine pairing – is a testament to Luke’s experienceabroad. Like Cape Town, it’s a melting pot of different culturesand cuisines, from Luke’s British-Swiss upbringing to his time inSouth East Asia and the Far East.

The first dish I’m set to taste is pickled fish -ceviche, lightlycurried dressing, BBQ carrots and ras el hanout honeycomb. Thenext, grilled scallops served with a braised scallop dressing and aselection of braised and raw shiitake mushrooms, is reminiscentof 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 thenewest addition to his menu. “A dish like that takes about two orthree months to get to a complete stage,” Luke tells me when
I ask about its conception. “It started off with a friend of minecoming back from Madagascar with a lot of vanilla and us eatingfoie gras with it. I love rose so I did a combination of rose-curedfoie gras with vanilla and rose-cured peaches. The final elementis 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 setsan unattainably high benchmark for the next two dishes: quailserved with liver and salt-cured pineapple and the pork bellywith parsley-pressed apples, wild rosemary infused honey, bluecream cheese and crackling.Somehow, they manage to arousethe same excited curiosity within me as the last.

After a light palate cleanser (a dish entitled ‘Green’, whichperfectly captures the smell of freshly cut grass), the next dishto arrive is the pan-fried line-caught yellowtail fish (which I learnis the local eco-diner’s number one choice) and my dinner date’schoice, the pan seared springbok, which comes served withspringbok skilpadjies, a traditional South African dish of lamb’sliver and kidneys but with Luke’s modern twist.

If I’m a little disappointed by the time dessert appears (arhubarb rose terrine with roasted strawberry butter, clotted creamand rose granite), it’s only because its theatrical arrival -it comesserved on a hotrod-inspired Gueridon trolley, which sparkscuriosity from other diners – marks the end of an incredible meal.But then there’s the gratifying task of grilling Luke on his finetunedfood philosophy to look forward to, too, and I start off byasking him where the name ‘The Test Kitchen’ came from.“When I left La Colombe I wanted to do a 16-seaterrestaurant, which opened Thursday, Friday andSaturday. The rest of the time I was going totest out new dishes,” he says. Having investedtoo much money and realising the weight of theage-old advice, “put bums on seats”, Luke laterdecided to open for lunch with a simple three-itemmenu and a five-item dinner offering. As the hypegrew, The Test Kitchen evolved and that’s where itis today: a restaurant offering seating for 60 covers
and the option of a five-course Discovery Menu ornine-course Gourmand Menu, with a huge globalfollowing and a place on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (No. 61).

Having sampled Luke’s dishes, I know thatevolution, experimentation and fl avour lie at theheart of his cuisine. But being served line-caughtyellowtail, 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 thatdefines me and my food,” he says. “I definitely useingredients that are sustainable [over] somethingthat’s not, but I will use something that isn’t. Forinstance, I use foie gras from France on my menubecause I love the taste, even though I know it’sprobably got a huge carbon footprint. Taste alwayscomes first,” he says with conviction.

My first impressions confirmed; taste takesprecedence in Luke’s kitchen, where flavour-lessfood is banished by his strict, impact-led culinarycreed. To emphasise his point he tells me that hemakes his entire kitchen staff taste a dish beforeit goes on the menu. “All my dishes should beimmediately 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 BestRestaurant Awards, which take place every April.Luke tells me he’d be surprised if The Test Kitchendoesn’t make it into the top 50 of the list this year, astatement I couldn’t agree with more.

“Looking back to last year and the year beforethat, we were good,” says Luke. And from whereI’m sitting, it looks like things are set to get even better.

 

Photography by Michael Le Grange