Since launching the Test Kitchen in Cape Town in 2010, British-born Luke Dale-Roberts has increasingly made his mark on the global food scene, with an innovative culinary style. Kerstin Kühn reports.
Luke Dale-Roberts has a calm yet confident command over his kitchen. His voice is soft but firm and consistently acquires a pertinent chorus of "Oui chef!" from his brigade. He elegantly moves among his busy chefs, correcting things here and there, all under the watchful eye of curious diners along the chef's counter lining the open kitchen.
Since launching the Test Kitchen in Cape Town in 2010, British-born Dale-Roberts has increasingly made his mark on the global food scene. His innovative culinary style, which gained him plaudits as the executive chef of the famous La Colombe restaurant, also in Cape Town, has continued to win him awards and accolades way beyond the shores of his adopted home of South Africa. And with his second venture, the Pot Luck Club, he's expanded his business with a new concept that may well be rolled out internationally.
The secret to Dale-Roberts' success is no doubt his food, which is neither modernist nor traditional but comprises an eclectic mix of techniques, cooking methods and international flavours and ingredients. "My food is a result of my life experiences; my travels and the things that influence me on a daily basis," he explains.
The Test Kitchen, as the name suggests, is all about research and development. It serves ever-changing tasting menus of refined dishes. "We are constantly trying things and developing new dishes to keep our menus fresh and continually evolving," says Dale-Roberts. "The focus is always on flavour."
"I don't have a mantra that governs my cooking," Dale-Roberts says. "One day I might do a foie gras bordelaise that is ridiculously classic, while the next day I might do something completely off the wall like a grilled langoustine jelly with oysters. I just want to do whatever feels right on the day without being pigeonholed into a specific style."
This nonconformist attitude seems to have defined Dale-Roberts from a young age. After training at Baur au Lac in Zurich, which he found "rigid and hardcore disciplinary", he moved to London, where he went against what may have been expected and instead of working with the capital's most celebrated chefs chose his restaurants based on personal preference. "I didn't follow the Michelin-starred route because I didn't really like the atmosphere in those kind of places," he says. "I couldn't deal with all the bullying and shouting and instead I chose restaurants where I felt I could learn and flourish."
He worked at Elena's L'Etoile in Soho, with then head chef and former Roux protégé Kevin Hopgood, who taught him "French cooking and the importance of detail, flavour and technique", as well as the Sugar Club Group, which "opened his mind to new ingredients". His first head chef position came in 2000 at the Loft, a modern fusion restaurant in the Mercure London City Bankside hotel owned by Accor. "The Loft did well and we got good reviews but after a while I wanted to do something different. Accor offered me a six-month contract to open a restaurant in Singapore, and my wife and I decided to give it a go."
He launched a new signature concept restaurant called the Square to great success, on the back of which he continued to open restaurants in Asia as Accor's mission executive chef. After a consulting contract with the Sofitel hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, he oversaw the openings of a French bistro and a modern Japanese restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, before moving to the Philippines, where at the Sofitel hotel in Manila he launched Spiral, a restaurant incorporating Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Mediterranean flavours.
"It was really cool to research all these different cuisines. I got totally immersed in it and learned as much as I could," he recalls. "But I missed having real ownership of what I was doing. It was exciting in the pre-opening phase but once the restaurants were up and running, I was always left wondering what to do next."
After four years in Asia, Dale-Roberts grew tired of the "corporate environment" of hotels and became increasingly desperate to make his mark as a creative restaurant chef. Encouraged by his South African wife, he pursued an opportunity in Cape Town, where La Colombe, one of the country's most celebrated restaurants, was looking for a new executive chef. Famous for its classic French cuisine, he joined the Constantia restaurant, located on the Uitsig wine estate, in November 2006.
"The first year was horrendous," he admits. "The previous chef had taken virtually the entire team with him - there were three unskilled staff left and the sous chef, who was hanging on by the skin of her teeth. During my first Christmas and New Year, we had people walking out of the restaurant in droves."
A new direction
He continued to try to make things work for about a year but eventually decided to cook his own style of food, moving away from classic French cuisine and introducing a more modern, Asian-influenced menu. The move quickly paid off and in 2008, Dale-Roberts and La Colombe won best chef and best restaurant in South Africa's prestigious Eat Out awards.
"I really started to get my confidence up then," he says. "I introduced two conceptual menus… I began to really channel my own creativity."
Innovative dishes like the La Colombe Egg - a foie gras "yolk" surrounded by a light truffle mousse cooked inside an eggshell and served in an egg-shaped bowl - catapulted the restaurant into the limelight both nationally and internationally. In 2010, it won best restaurant in the Eat Out awards for the third year running, scored full marks in the Rossouw's Restaurants guide (an annual guide to restaurants in Cape Town, the Winelands, and the Garden Route) and placed 12th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, wining the title of best restaurant in Africa and the Middle East.
Yet driven to build his own success, after four years at La Colombe, Dale-Roberts took the jump and launched his own restaurant.
"I really wanted to make things work for myself," he says. The Test Kitchen opened in November 2010 at Cape Town's Old Biscuit Mill, a creative hub of independent shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants that has redefined the previously derelict district of Woodstock.
"With the Test Kitchen I wanted to create something intimate, with a small team and a menu that had no starters or mains, just hot and cold small plates," Dale-Roberts explains.
He collaborated with local pottery makers to craft unique plates, bowls and platters, as well as local artists and designers to create an industrial-cum-organic space featuring exposed brick walls and red pipes next to oak beams, earthy toned walls, and a wooden counter encircling the open kitchen.
Virtually overnight, the Test Kitchen emulated La Colombe's success, with Dale-Roberts reclaiming the Eat Out best chef and best restaurant awards in his own right in 2011 and being named One to Watch in the World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2013. "You always hope that you will be successful but I never expected it to happen so quickly," he admits.
The pot luck club
In 2012, he branched out to open the Pot Luck Club in a space next door to the Test Kitchen. "I had lots of ideas for dishes that would work well for sharing but they didn't really fit into the Test Kitchen," he explains. The Pot Luck Club presents a menu of tapas-style dishes, arranged according to sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami tastes. Dishes include vodka-infused watermelon with Campari jelly; pig's tails; spicy turmeric and tamarind fried calamari; sticky beef short rib; curried celery leaves; mushrooms on toast; or quince and almond tart with melted popcorn ice-cream.
In winter 2012, the Pot Luck Club helped push Dale-Roberts' international profile even further, with a pop-up in Verbier, which transported his menu from the shores of the Cape to the ski slopes of the Swiss Alps. "The pop-up was an enormous success," he says. "We had the Royal family dine - Prince Andrew had his birthday there - and it was a real hangout for the hip Made in Chelsea crowd."
Back home, the Pot Luck Club sooon outgrew its home and at the start of 2013, Dale-Roberts moved it to a different site within the Old Biscuit Mill - this time a spectacular loft space with an open-plan kitchen and bar, and panoramic views over Table Mountain and the city.
Today, a reservation at the Test Kitchen or Pot Luck Club is one of the hottest tickets in Cape Town as both restaurants are booked up weeks in advance. Dale-Roberts has had a string of offers to open sites in the Middle East and even London but for now, he's staying put.
"It'd be stupid not to expand the Pot Luck Club - it's a really funky brand that has a lot of potential - but at the moment I'm being very, very cautious about doing more," he insists. "The more you do the more you neglect things around you, whether that's your personal life or your business. Up until now I have been very proud of everything I have done and I don't want that to change."
Herb-seared game fish, red cabbage three ways, apple dressing with horseradish emulsion
(Makes 4-6 portions)
Extra equipment: wood fire, fine strainer, vacuum bags, dehydrator and Thermomix
Herb seared game fish
500g tuna loin
50ml olive oil
15g Maldon sea salt
2 cloves garlic, sliced
30ml soy sauce
15ml rice vinegar
150g red cabbage
6 gelatin leaves
Cabbage powder Gastrique (250ml white wine,
50ml red wine vinegar, 45g sugar)
500g thinly sliced cabbage offcuts
Apple and mustard dressing
100g white onion, grated
200g Granny Smith apples, peeled
140ml rice vinegar
200ml soy sauce
1tbs brown sugar
20g ginger, grated
10ml sesame oil
5tbs minced horseradish
2tbs white wine vinegar
5tbs soy sauce
2 egg yolks
400ml olive oil
1tbs whole grain mustard
Garnish Liquorice powder
Deep-fried chiffonade ginger
To prepare the tuna, light a fire in a wood oven or a barbecue. Place a metal grid over the fire and allow it to get extremely hot. Drizzle the tuna with olive oil and rub with salt, thyme and sliced garlic. Add a bunch of thyme to the fire to create an aromatic smoke. Sear the tuna over the hot fire, cooking evenly on each side, allowing griddle marks to form. Once the tuna is cooked, allow it to cool in the fridge. Cut into 1.5 cm slices to serve.
For the cabbage jelly, slice the red cabbage and juice it in an electric juicer. Strain the cabbage juice into a pot with the water, soy sauce, rice vinegar and mirin. Bring the liquid to a simmer and skim off the foamy residue from the surface. Sponge the gelatin in iced water and melt it into the jelly liquid. Strain the jelly into a greased container and leave to cool. Refrigerate the jelly to set, then cut it into cubes.
To make the cabbage powder, bring the white wine, red wine vinegar and sugar to the boil. Allow the gastrique to cool. Place the cabbage in a vacuum bag, add the gastrique and seal it on full pressure. Bring a pot of water to the boil. Cook the cabbage for 15 minutes. Refresh the bag in iced water. Drain the liquid from the cabbage and spread out the cabbage thinly on trays lined with silicone paper. Dry it overnight in an oven at 50Â°C, then blitz it in a blender to create a powder.
To prepare the apple mustard dressing, blend the onion, apple, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, sesame oil and honey together in a Thermomix.
For the horseradish emulsion, place the minced horseradish, mustard, vinegar, soy sauce and yolks in the Thermomix. Blend, while slowly pouring the olive oil in a thin, steady stream into the blender until thick.
To serve, place the tuna slices on the plate, top with finely sliced cabbage and dress with the apple mustard dressing. Dot the horseradish dressing around the plate. Garnish with cabbage powder, liquorice powder and deep-fried ginger.