The year the World Cup thrust South Africa onto the world stage, Luke Dale-Roberts opened The Test Kitchen in Cape Town. Eight years later, the country boasts a culinary movement that's poised for its own moment on the world stage, and The Test Kitchen is helping lead the way as the reigning Best Restaurant in Africa.
The Test Kitchen experience is, quite literally, a journey from dark to light. Guests start in the Dark Room with a culinary trip through Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa, and then move into the Light Room for more elaborate fine-dining courses. Dale-Roberts, who later opened The Pot Luck Club in the same building and the Shortmarket Club in the city center, fully embraces the diversity that epitomizes both his own culinary journey and that of a city that played a major role in connecting cultures.
Around the time that Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, a Portuguese king gave the Cape of Good Hope its name in honor of the newly discovered trade route connecting Asia and Europe. In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company started developing what would become Cape Town, and waves of trade and colonization ensured a deep cultural diversity. Centuries later, Dale-Roberts' own journey would include many stops on the same global trade route.
Raised in rural England, the chef trained in Europe and Australia before opening several restaurants across Asia. After arriving in Cape Town in 2006 and becoming head chef at La Colombe, Dale-Roberts took the wine estate restaurant to No. 12 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. In 2010, he opened The Test Kitchen and watched his own restaurant reach No. 22 on the same 50 Best list. By comparison, no other restaurant in Africa ever cracked the top 30, and no other chef in Africa made the list with multiple restaurants. PRØHBTD spoke with the award-winning chef to learn more.
You once said you learned to cook in Europe but expanded your boundaries in Asia. What techniques and approaches really changed for you after spending time in the East?
I was very lucky when I worked in Asia because I was able to open a number of different restaurants, like a French Bistro and a modern organic Japanese restaurant. I was also lucky to move around and travel in different parts of Asia and get influenced by that. We traveled to Tokyo many times and worked in a restaurant group called Shunju, and the modern Japanese restaurant we opened in Korea, Shune, really [taught me] so much about basic Japanese techniques and flavors.
The Test Kitchen features cuisines from all around the world on its Dark Room menu. What motivated you to take such a global approach?
My food is very much a product of my life, my experiences to date and my current experiences. I've worked in Asia, I've traveled in Latin America extensively, and I'm from Europe, so I wanted the Dark Room experience to be a little journey around those flavors. I also think it's a nice way to start, you know? You have a map and see where you're going and you're trying different things. It's a journey.
You did a pop-up in Mauritius, which is one of the countries featured in the Dark Room.
That's right, yeah! We did that this year in May and June, and we obviously got very influenced by the cuisine there. We brought some of that experience back home with us as well.
My understanding is that the menu actually evolved the longer you stayed in Mauritius. Did you start to incorporate local foods and local dishes?
Absolutely. I mean, when we first got there, it was pretty much survival, just trying to get the food on plates on time as well as we could. Within a couple of weeks, we went to the local market, bought a whole lot of different ingredients and brought them back with us. We looked at them and just thought, ‘What could we do with this?’ It was really well received by the local community that we were using some of their staples on our menu.
How would you describe the cuisine in Mauritius, and what elements did you bring back to South Africa?
There are a lot of curries in Mauritius, and there's quite a lot of Indian influence, though I'm not sure exactly where from. There's a lot of achards and sambals, and those kind of things that we incorporated, and then there's obviously lots of tropical fruit like breadfruit and shushu and all those different tropical vegetables that you find in those climates.
Explain the difference between the Dark Room experience and the Light Room.
The Dark Room is a lot of snacks, a lot of food that you eat with your fingers. And then you tap on a porthole that opens, they let you into the Light Room, and that's classical music, white table cloths and plated flood. Slightly more conventional but still imaginative. And you do both. You always arrive at the Dark Room, which is like a soft landing, and then you go through into the Light Room.
With the water shortage in Cape Town and the countdown to Day Zero, you adapted by creating the Drought Kitchen. Can you tell me about that?
In March of this year, [Cape Town's local government] announced that they would be pretty much turning off the taps mid-April. We panicked and thought, ‘What on Earth are we going to do?’ and ‘How can we save water?’
The majority of water consumed in restaurants is on dishwashing, pot washing, and laundry. So we eradicated the laundry, moved to only paper napkins and took away all the tablecloths. We asked guests to keep their cutlery, so we didn't wash cutlery. We had picture frames made, and we put interchangeable pieces of biodegradable cardstock onto the frames. Then we plated everything on the cardstock and disposed of that. So we basically eradicated the dishwasher and the washing machine.
You've said that your mantra is flavor. What are the most important aspects of flavor, and what makes a flavor successful?
For me, something needs to be immediately delicious. When you try it, you need to be immediately arrested by how delicious it is. I believe that, first and foremost, it needs to be delicious, and secondly, it needs to be thought evoking, thought provoking and something you not only want to understand but need to understand, if you know what I mean.
You incorporate a lot of different culinary cultures together. What is the trick to having different types of flavors coexist in a dish without losing the essence of their individual flavors?
I think more and more my cuisine is celebrating an ingredient and supporting it as best I can. So I try to create dishes instead of flavors, so that all together, the flavors create an overwhelming sensation, rather than playing with a million different components that are fighting against each other. I also try to keep dishes quite... if it's modern British, I keep it modern British, and if it's Japanese, I keep it Japanese. I don't mix Japanese with modern British. That's not what I'm into.
Tell me about the biodiversity in South Africa. What are you able to source that helps make your dishes more unique than something we might find in Europe or Asia?
Well, there's amazing game obviously. There's an abundance of different antelope that are all in their own way delicious. You can cure them and make pans of bresaola with them, or you can cure them and serve them as a piece of grilled game. The cool thing about South Africa is that there's a lot of people who are into food and growing here, and more and more of those small little suppliers are coming to us and saying, "We've got horseradish mustard leaf, wasabi mustard leaf." They're playing around with a lot of different things, and I think they are getting influenced by what's happening in Europe or the States or Australia or whatever. But it's very much an emerging trend here that is exciting.
You arrived in South Africa in 2006. How would you describe culinary culture then, and how have you been able to help change that?
Well, it was a little bit barren when I first got here. There was some very good food, and the chef at the restaurant that I took over, La Colombe, was cooking beautiful food there, but from an ingredients point of view, it was quite green. There were a lot of people making cheese, but in my opinion, it wasn't well finished, whereas now it's very well finished. [We had] cured meat, stuff like that, but it was very much in its infantile state, whereas now you can access a lot of different ingredients through a lot of different suppliers. It is great.
You mentioned the growing culture in South Africa. Are there many herbs or plants that are unique to the area, and how do you incorporate them into the dishes?
There's the local fynbos, which is an indigenous plant that grows in often arid climates. You also have buchu, dune spinach and wild rosemary, and they're all quite medicinal. They've all got that slightly medicinal tone to them, so you need to be careful with them. I often use them to cure or to make vinegars rather than put them in an actual dish because it can become quite overwhelming.
You were raised in Punnetts Town, where you learned about farming, hunting, and sourcing. How did growing up around nature influence the way you approach food as a chef?
I was born in the countryside, and I grew up fishing, and we used to go out catching rabbits with ferrets, and all those kinds of things. I think being brought up in the country defined a lot of who I am today, and there's something you get by being submerged in nature from a young age. It's just fabulous.
The menu also goes out of its way to showcase South African wines. How would you describe South African wines, and why do you think they work well as a pairing for your dishes?
I think the wines in general are fantastic. We've got an enormous variety of different wines here that we can choose from, and there are a number of different climates that people can make wines in. Elgin has a cooler climate—Stellenbosch, the Swartland—there are a number of different areas where people are making wines. Like the cheese, it has just gotten better and better over the years. It was always good, and I think the wine was always ahead of the food production, but it's got better and better.
What would be some elements of the cuisine that truly reflect South Africa or even pre-colonial South Africa?
I've played around with a number of dishes. They have a dish in the town called Smiley, which is a cooked lamb or pig head. I've played around with my own versions of that, so I did a lamb head where I cooked the whole thing and then removed the brain, the tongue and the cheeks and served it in quite an Italian way. I roasted the pig head very slowly. I like to play around with that, but it's not an essential concentration for me.
Are you serving the head on a platter?
We did with the pig. It's on the menu now. We brought the head out, then we brought it back, and then we broke it down into a pretty little dish.
I imagine all the cell phones popping out for that.
Oh yeah, big time.
You played a huge role in helping make Cape Town an international destination, but if somebody comes here for Test Kitchen, what else should they explore in Cape Town or South Africa in general?
There are loads of restaurants that are fantastic. There are great ones in Cape Town and some fantastic restaurants in the Winelands, Stellenbosch [and] Franschhoek. Kobus Van der Merwe is cooking beautiful food on the West Coast [at Wolfgat], which is very much a foraging experience. There's a number of great restaurants!
If you come to South Africa, you eat and drink well. Everyone says it.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: All photos by Andy Lund, expect Billionaire Shortbread (image below) by Justin Patrick.