The Test Kitchen reinvented: full circle and a new beginning
Africa’s best restaurant, The Test Kitchen, which was a considerable influence in steering the fortunes of Cape Town’s Woodstock into a new direction when it opened in 2010, has reimagined its interior space and concept.
Africa’s best restaurant, The Test Kitchen, bears a very special place in South African restaurant lore – it is one of the most revered and awarded restaurants in the country. It has appeared on the Eat Out Top 10 every year since its opening in 2010, and was Restaurant of the Year four years in succession, from 2012 to 2015. In 2012, too, The Test Kitchen broke into the ranks of the San Pellegrino list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Last year, it came 22nd and was named Best Restaurant in Africa.
But the story of The Test Kitchen has another, fascinating dimension: it seems the fairy dust its chef and proprietor, Luke Dale-Roberts, was sprinkling in the kitchen somehow became instrumental in bringing about the urban alchemy that transformed the fortunes of the somewhat industrial, somewhat tatty Cape Town suburb of Woodstock.
Luke, a Brit who earned his stripes in London, Europe and Asia, and made his mark on the SA foodie scene at the Constantia landmark La Colombe, chose not a wine farm for his first solo venture, but a derelict industrial site – the Old Biscuit Mill. The building was being reinvented as a venue for offices, shops, stalls, workshops and markets: the typical mix of creativity and industry, grittiness and optimism, that brings about urban reinvention.
The magic ingredient in all this is excellence. Woodstock might have started looking cool, but what was its real substance? What did it really have going for it that had the power to steer the fortunes of the area? None less than TIME magazine pinpointed the date 24 November 2010, as the day Woodstock officially became Cape Town’s hottest district… when Luke Dale-Roberts opened The Test Kitchen there.
The Test Kitchen itself represented something new and maverick in its menu and approach. Luke is known for statements of this nature: “My team and I can spend the whole day creating. I told them that we can only be the best we can be if we analyse everything we do. If your job is to peel onions or sweet potatoes, then think about how you can peel them differently. And if everyone does that, if everyone takes responsibility for their own creativity, then we can grow.”
He specifically wanted a ground zero from which to reinvent the potato, so to speak, and he found it in Woodstock. But he didn’t stop there. A year later, he opened The Pot Luck Club, The Test Kitchen’s less formal sister, on the top floor of the Silo building, also at the Old Biscuit Mill. With its 360-degree views of the city, Manhattan loft-feel and open kitchen, The Pot Luck Club added a palpable energy to the venue.
“I’m cooking more than I’ve ever cooked before.”
The latest string in Luke’s culinary bow is The Shortmarket Club. He partnered with his wife, Sandalene Dale-Roberts, his top chef, Wesley Randles, and his manager, Simon Widdison, to open The Shortmarket Club in a heritage building off Bree Street in Cape Town. Given the transformation his previous ventures spearheaded in Woodstock, it not surprising that Luke says: “I’m extremely excited about what this will bring to the City Bowl.”
He also opened up his first Johannesburg venture, Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon in 2016 and, later that year, after the growth in his portfolio, he decided it was time to take another look at his flagship restaurant. The history of The Test Kitchen is a case study in how excellence and vision alone – or perhaps with a dollop of chutzpah and persistence – can contain within it the seeds of urban transformation. But that meant that in the six years since The Test Kitchen first opened its doors, its setting had radically transformed. It was existing in a new place and time. Luke decided to give the entire space an overhaul and reconsider it as a whole. “It was time to redefine this creative space, which has always been my focus in terms of creating the most flavourful, exciting and challenging food,” Luke explains.
So he closed up shop from mid-August to early October last year and went about reimagining the space inside, after having been so instrumental in reinventing the space around it.
“It had been six years since we opened The Test Kitchen. The restaurant initially opened as a project to see how far I could take my food, and it became a very busy restaurant, serving 60-65 guests lunch and dinner five days a week. I wanted to bring it back to what it was originally meant to be. I wanted to refocus and reset the parameters of what we are doing.”
The restaurant is now divided into two parts, the Dark Room and the Light Room. The vision was Luke’s, who worked closely with Sandalene and architect and designer Maurice Paliaga. Luke designed and made all the furniture and curated all the soft furnishings, tableware, linen and carpets. Hannelie Coetzee’s striking Sibling Portrait 2016, a burnt wood gravure, dominates the wooden wall in the dark room. And Egon Tania, working with Peter Forbes, created the jurassic metal pull-down platforms that throw sinister shadows on the wood-clad walls.
The Dark Room is a luxuriously inky space. This is where guests huddle together, engage with one another, and share plates of finger food. Diners indulge in cocktails and the first seven courses of the tasting menu here. It is a mysteriously atmospheric place, designed to make guests feel the distinct change of pace from the outside world. It is here you want to lower your voice, breathe deeply, and focus on food and conversation. It is this darkened space that creates a soft landing for the diner in preparation for the transition into the Light Room.
The Light Room is airier, poised and more formal. For the first time, there are tablecloths on the tables that create a sense of occasion. Rose geranium-infused water is served with rose petal ice cubes upon entering to create a division between the edgier Dark Room and the light, floral, freshness of the Light Room. It is here where guests will enjoy the remainder of the beautifully plated tasting menu in a more formal setting.
“I’m cooking more than I’ve ever cooked before.”
Luke has said that the revised Test Kitchen makes him happy. “I’m cooking more than I’ve ever cooked before and I feel like I’m indulging my first love again.”
Full circle and a new beginning… Who knows where it’ll take Woodstock this time!