Luke Dale-Roberts is a restless soul. For his restaurant, The Test Kitchen, in Cape Town this is a great blessing. “I cannot stand still”, says the award-winning chef. “I’ve always got to keep going. When new ideas take shape, then I’m happy”.
The Brit is also happy that he made the decision to come to Cape Town. “There are fantastic local products here, take the game for example – it’s unbelievable”, says the 43 year old. But he also had another important reason. When he made the decision to relocate, his international experience was so condensed that something entirely new has been created from it. In culinary terms, he was ripe.
After training at the pioneering London fusion restaurant Bali Sugar and at the renowned Baur Au Lac Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, Dale-Roberts found that he was drawn to Oriental cuisine. For five years he cooked in Singapore, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The menu of his second restaurant, The Pot Luck Club – which he opened just so he could try out new dishes – has a strong Asian character.
In The Test Kitchen Dale-Roberts hardly cooks anything like that. “In the beginning I had the feeling that we would be labelled ‘Oriental’, so I said there would nothing Oriental anymore”. Since then he has become less strict with this rule.
He also has a radical view on “signature dishes”. “Signature dishes hinder progress”, he says, “people will always want the same thing. At the opening I said there will be none of that here”.
Originally he didn’t even want any guests! Dale-Roberts’ plan was to open The Test Kitchen on just three nights a week, purely for the purpose of trialling new dishes. “Experiment, experiment, experiment”, he insists. However he soon realised that it wouldn’t work. “The thing with cooking is that you only come full circle when someone eats what you have cooked. You need that appreciation, that feedback. Otherwise it’s like a painting that nobody looks at”.
This is good news for the 65 guests who can take a seat in The Test Kitchen. While they eat at rustic wooden tables, they can see the chefs working in the open-plan kitchen. A room-length wooden bar separates the guests from the chefs. The functional steel of the kitchen and the ducts and pipes running under the ceiling contrast with the warm lighting and the rough brick walls of the dining room.
Dale-Roberts does not like any labels being attached to his style of cooking; only “authentic” is allowed. “I think that a really authentic chef cooks what he’s passionate about, what he has experienced and what he feels”. For this reason he is only now trying out local dishes seven years after arriving in South Africa. “I’ve now spent enough time in South Africa”, he explains, “to really have a feel for the dishes and the surroundings.“
One of his appetisers can bear witness to this. “Pickled fish” turns a simple Cape Malay South African recipe into a dream of Malay curry and Mexican ceviche. Surprising, but perfect is the final course; a classic assiette de chocolat.
“I believe that a creative person never stops being creative”. Luke Dale-Roberts has the best example of this in his own family. “My father is composer”, he explains, “and I believe that now, at the age of 80, he composes more than ever before”. However, he does realise that “physically it’s not possible to be cooking at such a great age”. Luke Dale-Roberts is a driven man who can’t stand still and yet it seems that he may just settle down in Cape Town. “Cape Town is the best city in the world”, he raves. The chef is sitting in his restaurant, The Pot Luck Club, pointing out the window. “I mean, just look around you – you’ve got the sea, the mountains and the forests. Fantastic wines and great restaurants; it doesn’t get better than this“.
Text: Judith Reker
Pot Luck Club