Luke Dale-Roberts, chef owner, The Test Kitchen

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th September 2019

The chef owner of The Test Kitchen was born in East Sussex and trained in Switzerland before travelling around Asia - Singapore, Malaysia, Seoul, where he opened a series of hotel restaurants for Accor Group.

He finally moved to South Africa with his wife, where he worked at La Colombe, then opened The Test Kitchen almost a

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decade ago. The restaurant has since received widespread acclaim, both nationally and internationally, featuring in The World's 50 best and named best restaurant in Africa last year. 

We spoke to the chef about his own style of cooking and how it has changed over the years, what the South African culinary scene is like and why it doesn't matter to him that Michelin haven't yet released a guide for the country. 

Why 'The Test Kitchen' - is it a test kitchen?

When I first opened it I wanted to have one table with sixteen people and I wanted to open three nights a week to just experiment all the rest of the time.

But obviously the investment got out of control and  there was absolutely no way that it could be a sustainable business - employing staff and overheads and wages and rent and all that, so when I looked at the budget I thought, 'oh god I'm going to have to open every night, five nights a week' and then we were like 'we may as well open the odd lunch if it's busy.'

Then as we got more popular more people came for lunch and they were scrutinising what we were doing and then we had to do the same for lunch and dinner and then we just grew and grew and grew. 

Was the food informed by your European training, your travels? 

When I first came to Cape Town I worked in a classic French restaurant and I did classic French because I had to fit into the formula but I was still itching to use the Asian influence that I'd learnt in Asia.

Ten years ago  I started introducing some Japanese technique and some Asian flavours and that was brand new for South Africa, no-one had really done any of that before - everyone just went mad for it. 

Now there's a lot of people doing it and I've really moved away from that now and I'm finding that I'm doing more and more modern British inspired, or modern European.

I'm making a lot of extractions from osso bucco, milanese and I'm making extractions out of cottage pie so it's like very refined comfort food.

Assummedly there are influences from the local food culture too? 

We also went through a phase of doing quite a lot of Cape Malay inspired food. There's a strong Cape Malay culture here - I had a couple of dishes, I call it the smiley 1 and the smiley 2 which was first of all a pig head dish where we cooked the whole pig head and then the second one was the lamb's head and I served the tongue, the brain and the cheek all on one plate, so that's township - the lamb's head is really popular in the township, they boil the heads and they eat it so I just broke that down. 

I'm finding that the older I get I'm steering more and more to my British heritage in the style of food that I'm doing, and that was the whole point of The Test Kitchen, I could literally go in any direction I wanted and I'm so glad that I did it that way. 

The whole point of The Test Kitchen was that it was opened for the discovery of food and flavour - I wanted to discover food and flavour combinations and I wanted to grow on that and it still holds true to this day. 

Can you give me an example of three native South African ingredients that you have on the menu at the moment and how you incorporate them into your style of food? 

We use Springbok at the moment in The Pot Luck club, we're using wild lamb so lamb that is grazed - I can't remember what it's called but it's basically lamb that just grazes and walks, it's not contained within a small field with a feeding area. We've got this company called The Herdsman, it's incredible lamb and South African lamb is really really good. 

Then I used cured fynbos, a wild plant that grows in the mountains here and I make cures and oils and vinegars out of it. 

sweetbread salad

Sweetbread salad

What flavour profiles does it have?

You've got different kinds of fynbos, you've got wild rosemary, you've got june sage, it's all very grassy, on the medicinal kind of level, if you know what I mean. It's all got that slightly medicinal; I don't actually use it in sauces, I find it's too heavy, it hits you too much in the back of the nose. 

And in so far of the techniques that you use, did you say that you apply a lot of your British techniques and maybe what you learnt in Switzerland, your modern French training? 

That's the basis for it but I'm using more Japanese - my sauce bases are much more Japanese, but with British flavours. I've got a special way of making my sauces, it's pretty unique, I don't think anyone's doing it, I'm not going to tell you how I do it. 

It sounds like you've contributed to changing the South African food culture, can you tell me a bit about how it's evolved in the past decade since you've been around?

I hate to say this because it sounds so big-headed but I think I contributed in terms of the guys that I've trained and that have subsequently opened their own restaurants and also the Asian - I was probably the first person to really bring Asian-influenced food into South Africa. 

One of the reasons I'm going away from it now is because it doesn't feel genuine anymore for me, I've been away long enough from Asia that it doesn't feel that genuine and I feel like if you're a tourist and you're eating out and you go to six different restaurants and it's all Asian-inspired, you're going to get fatigued. 

You must be multiplying the number of restaurants in South Africa at quite a pace. 

Yeah but it feels saturated now. The next thing we're looking for is something outside. I want to grow the Potluck brand outside of South Africa, that's my next objective. There's almost too many fine-dining restaurants now. 

Where would you go? 

I'm open, I'm just waiting to see, we've got a couple of options but maybe the Emirates, maybe Asia, maybe even Europe. Europe would be great but I'm just not sure if London is strong enough at the moment, it's a bit of a worrying situation over there at the moment. 

You have lots of restaurants on the international stage but there is still a glaring obvious one that isn't there and that's Michelin, how do you feel about that? 

It doesn't matter to me anymore really. There's no guide in the country, it's just one of those things, isn't it. I think the economics of it don't work out so there's no guide so there's no stars. One less thing to worry about. 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th September 2019

Luke Dale-Roberts, chef owner, The Test Kitchen