Last supper as chef Luke Dale Roberts shutters The Test Kitchen
What did the acclaimed restaurateur serve when he closed his world famous Cape Town eatery for good? Our Food editor shares the lowdown
It was way back in 2009 that, lured by the long queue, we sniffed out the appetisingly golden brown and crispy warm potato rösti, a flat fritter-style of fried grated potato, balancing a perfectly poached egg bathed in a velvety hollandaise sauce. Eggs benedict of the highest order.
The only difficulty was devouring it, greedily, among throngs of people in a packed Neighbourgoods Market, a food hotspot at the Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town. I didn’t realise at the time it was my first taste of the food of chef Luke Dale Roberts. I was hooked.
Dale Roberts, then of La Colombe restaurant fame, told me recently that the birth of his much-lauded eatery, The Test Kitchen, happened about the same time his wife and partner Sandalene suggested he take a look at the revitalised buildings on the other side of the Biscuit Mill.
“The unit felt so cool, extremely cool,” he said.
Fast-forward to a dozen years later, the last night of September 2021, to a memorable occasion as guests gathered for The Test Kitchen's “last supper” — the restaurant packed, the mood buoyant, bubbles flowing.
My colleague and I watched as the multi-awarded chef moved about the open kitchen alongside his band of young chefs (Dale Roberts is known for having mentored many of SA's up-and-coming culinary talents). A small space, yet the operation was a well-oiled machine under his leadership.
Rather than a sad goodbye, the evening felt like a party, an informal gathering of friends getting together to toast Dale Roberts and his team — with the best meal and wine, of course.
When I spoke to him a week later, the chef told me the evening, “rather than one of huge sadness, had been a celebration. Sometimes it’s just time.”
There was a sense of relief, leaving behind the stress of living up to the many awards the maverick's eatery had earned over the years.
“At 50,” he said, referring to his recent milestone birthday, “it was time for change.”
On the night, the air was peppered with intrigue. What fabulous food was going to feature on the final menu at The Test Kitchen?
Dale Roberts' multi-course celebration featured all the hallmarks of his incredible talent.
“It’s a menu with simple, seasonal ingredients,” he said, almost casually, of the six-course tasting menu.
“I always use seasonal ingredients, and those ingredients — say carrot, tomato, celeriac, coconut, butternut and pear — are the best at that time,” he said.
Each course highlighted an ingredient.
Dale Roberts and his team have a delicious knack for creating small plates of wonderful surprises. It’s that kind of creative playing with food that starts a conversation, leaving one’s palate resonating with flavour.
That is, if you can refer to a carrot as a mere “seasonal ingredient” when it's dressed up in a sublime dish with the freshest seared scallop (small and tasty, we decided it had to have been locally sourced) and a yuzu, carrot and ginger dashi (broth).
We kicked off the meal by raising our glasses to the equally well chosen wines. For this course, Raised by Wolves Bonniemile muscat blanc 2017.
Next came the humble tomato tucked into a very tempting mound of saffron linguine — the colour dazzling — with octopus and feta in a mussel broth.
Who would have known that an ugly, knobbly root of celery — celeriac — could be the star of an Italian classic when served, unusually, in a savoury tiramisu? This one was made with quail breast with a coffee and liver jus and an Amaretto Chantilly cream. It was different, very different, the coffee flavour perhaps a little heavy-handed and taking over the delicate flavours of the quail, and we missed the hero celeriac. Perhaps a little lost in translation?
The Sadie Family Palladius 2017 paired beautifully with the coconut course, an Asian laksa (Dale Roberts spent many years working in Asian kitchens) with seafood, and a galangal salsa with cashew and ginger.
The humble butternut, a South African favourite, and hero of the last main course, came served with slices of seared springbok. The squash had been cooked in a flavoursome potjie reduction that was served alongside.
The most touching part of the evening was Dale Roberts' speech, peppered with many thank-yous and acknowledgments.
It was Sandalene who reminded everyone of just how talented and self-effacing the man is. He's never been one to flaunt the many awards he's won over the years, and has always had huge compassion for his staff.
It brought The Test Kitchen era at the Old Biscuit Mill to a fitting closure — but not before we wrapped up with a touch of sweetness: a beautiful, fresh pear gently poached in port. It was boozy and delicious, served with an upside-down cake and spelt (an ancient grain) and hulled wheat woven into an ice cream.
PS: LDR has handed the rösti business over to his longest-serving staff member, chef Xolisa Dyabaza, so you can taste the delicious eggs benedict on potato rösti at the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock on Saturday mornings.
PPS: The very good news is The Test Kitchen is moving to Rosebank, Johannesburg, in early 2022.