Luke Dale-Roberts is a restless soul. This is a great blessing for his restaurant The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, South Africa. “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 British native is happy about his decision to move to Cape Town. “There are fantastic local products here, such as the game – it’s unbelievable,” says the 43-year-old. But he is also happy for another even more important reason. He had previously amassed so much international experience and in Cape Town, it recombined into something entirely new. In kitchen talk, 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 felt drawn to Asian cuisine. For five years he cooked in Singapore, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. As a result, Asia influences the menu of his second restaurant, The Pot Luck Club, which he opened just so he could try out new dishes.
In The Test Kitchen, Dale-Roberts hardly cooks anything from the Far East. “In the beginning I felt that we would be labelled ‘Asian,’ so I said no more Asian.” Meanwhile he is less strict with this rule.
He also has a radical view on the signature dish, which he says “impedes progress. 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! His plan was to open The Test Kitchen on just three nights a week, solely for the purpose of trying out new dishes. “Experiment, experiment, experiment,” he insists. However he soon realized that 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 diners that The Test Kitchen can accommodate. While they eat at rustic wooden tables, they watch 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 dining room’s warm lighting and rough brick walls.
Dale-Roberts does not like the use of any labels to describe 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.” Which is why he is only now trying out local dishes seven years after arriving in South Africa. “I’ve now spent enough time in South Africa to really have a feel for the dishes and the environment,” he explains.
One of his appetizers exemplifies this new local turn. “Pickled fish” transforms a simple Cape Malay South African recipe into a dream of Malay curry and Mexican ceviche. The final course, a classic assiette de chocolat, is surprising but perfect.
“I believe that a creative person never stops being creative,” with Luke Dale-Roberts citing his own family as the best example. “My father is a composer,” he explains, “and now, at the age of 80, I think he is composing more than ever before.” But the chef also knows that “physically, it’s not possible to be cooking at such an advanced age.” Luke Dale-Roberts is a highly-motivated man who can’t stand still, yet he just might settle down in Cape Town. “Cape Town is the best city in the world,” raves the chef, pointing out the window of his restaurant, The Pot Luck Club. “I mean, just look around you – you’ve got the ocean, the mountains and the forest. Fantastic wines and great restaurants; it doesn’t get better than this.”
Text: Judith Reker
Pot Luck Club