Restaurant doors flung open for Test Kitchen ‘Fledgelings’
Not every ambitious would-be young chef can get a foot in the door of the industry. Enter Sandalene Dale-Roberts and her TTK Fledgelings, and that door is kicked wide open.
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At the beginning of April 2021, a new restaurant quietly opened at 88 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town, called TTK Fledgelings. But it’s no ordinary restaurant.
Oh you’ll be welcomed and served professionally, and you’ll get amazing food – at really reasonable prices too. What sets this place apart from the rest is that it is a hands-on training ground for people who are willing to work hard and learn hard for a potential future in the hospitality industry, gaining their knowledge from experts and professionals in the business, all while earning a salary.
TTK stands for The Test Kitchen, the famous restaurant at the Old Biscuit Mill in Salt River, created and run by Luke Dale-Roberts; Fledgelings occupies the space that was formerly Shortmarket Grill (another restaurant in the group along with Pot Luck Club), and is the realisation of a years-long desire of Sandalene Dale-Roberts to open a skills school. It was born not of Covid, but during Covid, and draws together threads of relationships, job creation, empowerment and mentorship. Plus, they were paying the rent on the premises, so why not put it to good use?
Sandalene Dale-Roberts talks at a mile-a-minute, words spilling enthusiastically from her mouth between peals of laughter as she explains how it all works, and the people for whom she has such clear love.
“I probably don’t know exactly what it is!” she laughed, when I asked her to explain TTK Fledgelings. “I’m a very fly by the seat of my pants type of person but it’s a group of people I met, I fell in love with, and that I recognise as incredible. They’re intelligent and have their matric but have, for example, had to drop out of university because their parents couldn’t afford the fees because of job losses.
“We were sitting around, and I said ‘okay guys’ – because I am so much older than them all, ‘what are your dreams?’. I was trying to get my head around the whole thing and they were, ‘San’ – they all call me that – ‘can we get back to you on that one?’. Days turned into weeks and I realised it was because they just needed jobs. Which made me feel very sad. There are so many people, amazing, willing human beings for whom nothing is too big or too small or too much trouble, and they just can’t find work.”
Ambition and dreams had simply eroded away.
During lockdown, Dale-Roberts’s son’s nanny Bibo (Nocimo) Magidiwana came to live with them, along with her twin daughters, now 21, and two younger children aged four and eight. During this time, she opened a stall at Oranjezicht City Farm Market with Magidiwana and Melody van van Gesselleen, to fulfil a promise she made to start a business with Magidiwana. There was evolution from the initial idea of mussels and vetkoek into fish and chips, calamari and mussels, but eventually the whole venture grew too large for the location. But not before Dale-Roberts decided she wanted to add sushi to the menu.
“Luke said you can never do that, it’s an art, it’s crazy. And I said I know we can do this. I phoned a friend of mine, a great Nobu chef, who put me in touch with a guy waiting for a visa to go to the Nobu hotel in Saudi, Eric Manyenkawu. He came to my house, and he trained Lihle. His crunchies are on our menu here.”
We had salmon crunchies with cream cheese, smoked jalapeños, spicy mayo and teriyaki; and tuna crunchies with spring onion, Kewpie mayo and teriyaki to begin our meal and both were fabulous. About those reasonable prices? R85 for five pieces, made by shy, softly spoken Lihle Tshawuza (one of the boyfriends of Magidiwana’s twin daughters) who plans to be a fashion photographer. “This has been a huge opportunity for me to learn how to cook,” he said.
The mentorship at Fledgelings covers all aspects of a fully functional restaurant, from front of house, to scullery, to bar, to floor service and of course the kitchen. In each section, staff from the group are overseeing their trainees as they learn the ropes, not by watching but by doing.
The concept of mentors is not a new one to Luke Dale-Roberts and the Fledgelings project aims to empower those who are not able to afford formal training.
“Something people don’t know about Luke because he doesn’t advertise it, and neither do I, is he speaks Spanish and French – his mother is Swiss French – and at his first head chef job in England, the kitchen porters (scullers) were from Ecuador. By speaking Spanish, Luke got to know them and one of them became his sous chef. It’s something he does. It’s a very special quality,” said Dale-Roberts.
“At Test, he has a programme which no one knows about… if a sculler shows potential to do bread, they will move up. When that happens they have to bring another sculler in to fill the vacancy and there’s accountability, because if it’s someone with a shitty bad attitude, the sculler reverts to that position.”
The upward mobility of this model has seen staff rise to sous chef, and become role models in their fields and communities, added Dale-Roberts. “And that inspired me, the way Luke has always uplifted.”
The same principle is employed at Fledgelings; the trainees are invited to bring in candidates of their own, and it goes for the mentors too. But there is at least one condition besides a strong work ethic: they must have matric.
“I think it’s important to draw that line in the sand. I also don’t want them to think they don’t need to bother with it,” said Dale-Roberts. “Having a kid myself, I want to push that, to get it under their belt.
“I keep saying to them, ‘you don’t have to do this, just because I’m giving you this opportunity’. If you decide it’s not for you and you don’t want to stand for 14 hours a day, that is completely your right. I will not be upset. It’s not for everybody.
“But after working in this industry you can really do anything. You learn so many invaluable skills.”
In the beginning – only five weeks ago, mind – the menu was a bit of a “mish mash” said Dale-Roberts. “Everything was fried, but I want them to really be able to cook. I want them to walk out of here and get a job, whether it’s as a private chef for a family, or in a restaurant.”
And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. All fledglings eventually get kicked out of the nest and have to learn to fly on their own. “It’s not forever,” sighed Dale-Roberts.
“We’ve also said we’d like them to also mentor before they leave. If they want to. If they get an amazing opportunity tomorrow they must do it. They’re learning now from people who are being wonderful and very patient, and I remind them to remember that.”
As it stands now, there are three parts to the menu: sushi, salads and light meals, and more substantial main courses, being fish and chips, steak and chips, and the trio of TTK burgers which originated during lockdown.
“Luke did the burgers in the second lockdown, to pay staff, keep them working, and to boost morale,” said Dale-Roberts. “We make the milk buns, which are incredibly technical. I asked head chef Taryn about the highlight of her day earlier and she said ‘watching my fledglings getting the milk buns right!’. They glisten and shine,” smiled Dale-Roberts.
I had the crunchy chicken burger with kimchi cabbage, charred pineapple (yet it goes on a burger), sesame mayo and pickles. My partner had the beef (grass fed) with wholegrain truffle mayo, pickled and mature cheddar. When I asked our fledgling waiter Bongani if it also came on a milk bun because it didn’t say on the menu, he rewarded me with the best-trained answer of all, without skipping a heartbeat: “Let me check with the kitchen.” Flip, even I felt proud in that moment.
You know what I mean, right? When you ask a question about the menu and there’s a hesitation and you just know whatever they say next is going to be some made up bullshit because they don’t know what to say. But people, it’s not their fault. It’s training. Or lack of it rather..
The third burger is tofu, but don’t hold that against them. Each comes with a sprinkle of fries but if you need more, order the loaded fries with cheese and truffle mornay sauce, grated Parmesan, and jalapeños preserved and smoked in-house. I kept saying I must stop eating the fries, as I popped another two into my mouth. At this point it had nothing to do with hunger because between the burgers and sushi, we’d both ordered the okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake with calamari, yuzu dressing and burnt honey and soy glaze.
Dale-Roberts told us about it, saying “it’s the most amazing dish ever, and has become our signature dish. If you don’t have it, you will cry”.
Well, we couldn’t have that now, could we?
Put it this way. Dale-Roberts said she has been blown away by the repeat business so far, some guests coming back the very next night. If I could go back every night for another of these pancakes I would. Oh. My. Word. One of the most delicious things I have eaten in a very long time. Now I know, I would definitely cry if I couldn’t have it again.
It’s head chef Taryn Smith’s dish, which she came up with while doing the Pot Luck Club pop-up at EGG in Cavendish Square. Of her role at Fledgelings, she said: “It’s a lot of responsibility to give these fledglings the training they require. They are very green but so willing to learn, which helps make the teaching experience more exciting.
“It’s a great opportunity for us too, the mentors. We get a chance to actually impart our knowledge in a way that’s received eagerly. You get students from cooking schools who have the background but don’t necessarily have that willingness.”
Aviwe Snyman is a fledgling manager and the other boyfriend of one of the Magidiwana’s twins (and no, sorry I did not ask who was with whom, and which one was also working at Fledgelings). He said he loves working with people and is mentored by GM Steven Hackner, and Melody van Gesselleen.
“It’s totally awesome, coming to work every day knowing you’re going to learn something,” said Snyman.
“It’s spectacular, the energy is something else,” said Van Gesselleen, a longtime friend of Dale-Roberts. “San and Bibo and I started working at the market and it was a bunch of three giggly girls. And then I learned how to cook crispy calamari and I was very proud of myself! I had so much fun.
“There’s such a good vibe as eager and energetic personalities open up. This has been Sandalene’s passion for years. It’s been terrifying at times – I did this for 15 years, but 13 years ago so muscle memory kicks in, and these guys are starting from scratch. Two of my ‘supposed’ fledglings have already overtaken me, and we’ve only been open a month. You know, when they walk up those stairs, they smile.
“My negative? They’re going to have to go and how do we do that? You get attached so fast.”
With average prices hovering around R100, TTK Fledgelings is an affordable night out, and I’d recommend you book because I predict it’s going to become one of the hottest spots in town. The burgers can be ordered and collected on Friday during the day but they’re not going to turn you away if you want a one on another evening, or some sushi, to go.
Drinks are also well-priced, from R30 or R40 a shot for spirits, wine from R50 a glass, and a selection of cocktails culled from TTK restaurants, including the Grapefruit Martini and Pomegranate Mojito; Pot Luck’s Vanilla Pineapple Cosmo and Passion Fruit Sake; and SMG’s Raspberry Clover Club. I can’t remember everything that went into it, but there was tequila, it was pink, and it was pretty. It tasted good too. Oh yes, egg white froth on top.
The vibe on a Friday night was electric as tables filled up (all correctly socially distanced), and whenever new diners appeared at the top of the stairs, someone (probably Dale-Roberts or Van Gesselleen) shouted “new table!” and all the staff cheered. As did we, after I’d had a cocktail and a bit of wine, sometimes a beat too late, but what the heck.
“It’s inexpensive and I feel very strongly about keeping these prices. We don’t make any money but I need it to be supported and to continue for what it is,” said Dale-Roberts fervently.
“This restaurant – look around. It’s such a mixed bag, it makes my heart sing, it’s so diverse in every way. Every kind of person from every part of Cape Town comes here. It’s accessible.”
Before you go, there is but one dessert on the menu: a riot of sweet flavours and textures including a brûlée banana, salted caramel, berry glaze, passion fruit purée, three scoops of ice cream and a cloud of candy floss. Not for the faint hearted. DM/TGIFood
The Test Kitchen Fledgelings, at 88 Shortmarket Street, is open Wednesdays to Saturdays for dinner only (and takeaway burger collections during the day on Fridays). click here to view menu or book online or call 078 339 2672 to book your table.