TGIFOOD

TEST KITCHEN SHOCKER

Luke Dale-Roberts announces closure of famed Woodstock eatery

Luke Dale-Roberts of The Test Kitchen. (Photo: Supplied)

After 11 starry years and earning a place among the top 50 restaurants in the world, Cape Town’s arguably most famous restaurant will bow out gracefully at the end of September 2021.

There you are, quietly minding your own business on a Thursday afternoon, contemplating what bottle of wine to open with dinner, and a massive email bombshell drops: The Test Kitchen is closing. Forever.

Cue klaxons as the Cape Town – and the rest of the world probably – food loving community drops its collective jaws. Social media explodes. My wine gets sadly pushed aside as I call Dale-Roberts for his comments. Actually, the wine part is a lie; this is a story that needs a glass of something good on the side to aid digestion of the news.

The Test Kitchen opened at the Old Biscuit Mill in November 2010 and the following year Dale-Roberts was crowned Chef Of The Year at the Eat Out awards. That was only the beginning of a string of accolades; year by year The Test Kitchen climbed the ranks of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna… first at number 74, then 61, and in 2014 it cracked the top 50 at number 48.

At the same time it was voted Best In Africa. Until 2019, The Test Kitchen stayed in that golden circle of the top 50, and then of course Then Covid Came Along. It’s a phrase used so frequently it will probably find a place in our lexicon together with I Hope This Email Finds You Well. Frankly, I’d prefer it if it didn’t find me at all.

“This is a dark day for South Africa’s food scene as The Test Kitchen prepares to close its doors for good,” said Tamsin Snyman, Tamsin Snyman Publishers and founder of Plant-Based Creative. 

“Working for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards as Academy Chair for Africa, I have had the great honour of keeping a close eye on Luke from the moment he landed La Colombe on the W50BR list at #38 in 2009.” 

The following year LC climbed to #12. Soon after, Luke left the restaurant to open TTK; 12 is the highest ranking South Africa has ever achieved in the 19-year history of these awards.

In 2016 it rose as high as 22nd in the world after having reached 28th the year before.

“For the next decade – along with Margot Janse (The Tasting Room) and Scot Kirton (La Colombe) – Luke firmly flew the SA food flag on the global culinary stage and kept international eyes and tastebuds tuned into our country.”

Right at the beginning of lockdown, in March 2020, Dale-Roberts closed all his restaurants. It was a dark time indeed. In the months thereafter, he put together luxurious high-end hampers for people at home doing Zoom conferences and such; he made kick-ass burgers for takeaway; he pared back multiple-course TTK menus and launched The Test Kitchen Origins in October 2020. The Shortmarket Club evolved into TTK Fledgelings in April 2021, and The Test Kitchen itself returned to an expanded offering.

TTK Origins ran for a few months, then it was scrapped and went back to the five- and seven-course menus. “That’s all we’ve been doing since. But obviously, with different curfews and so on we had to reduce the size of the menu,” said Dale-Roberts. “The business needs to be full. The restaurant needs to be full with the staff we’ve got.”

The closure will see some employees reallocated while others will move on to other opportunities – something which many chefs who have worked in LDR kitchens have done.

The decision to close The Test Kitchen permanently is not one that has been taken lightly. It’s deeply personal, as well as influenced by the pandemic, and sensible business practice. Dale-Roberts believes creativity comes in cycles, and where he is at the moment is the right time for him to turn his focus elsewhere.

“The Test Kitchen has been an amazing journey and I’ve absolutely loved every minute of it,” he said. “I feel like in order to keep it going I would need to change it back into a bit of a food factory – which is something I decided not to do.”

And it gives him a bit of breathing space too – and relief from being under the constant scrutiny of the general public. That’s the thing about setting the bar so high; everyone is always watching to see if you fall over it.

“Covid definitely had a bearing on my decision. If there had not been any Covid, it would probably have been different. We’ve had to weather the storm,” he said.

There’s been speculation that Covid will have a lasting impact on fine dining, as many turn towards other options like home deliveries and in-and-out quickies (as if the virus is like the five-second rule and will only strike if you dally over your dessert).

“I think there’ll still be an appetite – if you’ll excuse the pun – for fine dining. When I did Origins it became apparent quite quickly that people wanted a longer experience and they wanted to have multiple courses. That’s what the expectation was and we decided to change back. So there will always be a desire for that journey.”

Said Snyman: “There is no doubt the Covid-19 global pandemic has had a major impact on Luke’s decision to close TTK’s doors. His deep devotion and passion as a world class chef has been worn down by this pandemic and has forced him to focus on new, brighter and more sustainable projects. 

“The timing is bitter sweet as he most certainly achieved his dreams and goals with TTK and is at peace with this closure. I, for one, am massively excited for Luke and what he plans to unfold for his food fans… he is massively talented and a treasure to us all. Thank you for keeping the spotlight on SA for so many years.”

TTK Fledgelings, a project launched by Sandalene Dale-Roberts, will benefit as Luke Dale-Roberts spends more time there. “I’ve been working at Fledgelings all day today on a new menu, with some dishes inspired by Sandalene’s ideas,” he said. “I know what I’m doing in the kitchen,” he added with no trace of ironic understatement, or humble bragging, “so I can help. It’s fun and really exciting to be involved with the youngsters who have very little experience.”

Dale-Roberts has always been an advocate for mentoring chefs, and it has been a large part of his restaurant life, a pay it forward if you will, for all the help he had along the way. “You get a lot of nourishment from the process of teaching. So that’s great,” he said. “I feel like I’ve imparted a great deal of knowledge to many people and there’s a lot of space for them to spread their wings now and make an impact.”

Fledgelings will “absolutely yes” stay in its current format, so that’s excellent news for Cape Town diners who want an easy, informal slice of LDR magic that won’t break the bank. “That’s what’s so nice about Fledgelings – it’s a lot more affordable, and it’s a lot more fun; it’s the joy of cooking and teaching,” said Dale-Roberts. 

At Pot Luck Club, head chef Jason Cosmos has a very firm hand on the food – and his food’s exceptional – said Dale-Roberts. “We’re looking at doing a possible collaborative dinner, or series of dinners, maybe October or November. And then I’ve got a couple of projects in Joburg that will become apparent at some point.”

With only two months left to dine at The Test Kitchen, and bookings likely to be as difficult to secure as white peacocks (they’re one of the rarest things on earth), what can we expect if we manage to get a seat at the bar? “I’m planning to continue working with the seasons,” said Dale-Roberts. “We changed a couple of dishes yesterday. We’ll keep it fresh and keep pushing it to the end.”

The Test Kitchen, throughout its various incarnations, has always been a destination dining experience, whether one is fortunate enough to have made it a regular place to eat or for anyone scrimping and saving for a special occasion, or to at the very least have bragging rights for dining there.

“This is a devastating loss for our industry and for South Africa as a whole. It was always at the top of its game, the food was revolutionary, technically creative, beautiful to look at and taste; full of texture and incredible flavour. The wine list was always exquisite and offered classics and secret gems, with a wonderful selection of older, otherwise unavailable wines,” said Bubbles Hyland from Well Red Wine

“It has always been a bucket list destination for the rich and famous when visiting Cape Town, it’s reputation preceding itself across the globe. 

It was also the setting of one of my favourite dinners. It was a date night with my future husband celebrating the first year of us. We were blown away by the gastronomy, and delirious about the wine. We didn’t stop smiling throughout the entire dinner. And were the last to leave. It is a night that I will never forget. Thank you for the precious memories.

I am absolutely devastated to hear this news. Thank you Luke for giving us such an iconic restaurant right on our doorstep.”

It’s been nearly 11 years of glory, and there have been many moments of which Dale-Roberts can be proud. “Just opening it was a proud moment, opening the doors and reinventing the way I looked at food,” he said. “There have been proud moments all the way, through people I’ve seen grow up and cook beautiful food. 

“I phoned all my head chefs before the announcement and thanked them for all they did. I re emphasised the gratitude I have for all the people who have worked within my organisation, both front of house and kitchen, and suppliers. I couldn’t have done it without them.” 

It’s definitely a very sad day with this news of The Test Kitchen closing, said Scot Kirton of the La Colombe group. “Luke has led the way for many years in the fine dining game and most certainly lifted the overall standard of food in this country through his creations and the individuals he has trained. 

“We at La Colombe have always had massive respect for what he has done and having The Test Kitchen around has always driven us to be better and improve on a daily basis. We will certainly miss the competitiveness we shared. We wish him good luck with whatever he has planned. The Cape Town food scene won’t be the same without him.” 

One thing is for sure: that last service on Thursday, 30 September, 2021 is going to be one heck of an emotional night. DM/TGIFood

Bookings for The Test Kitchen can be made online by visiting the website or by calling +27 (0)21 447 2337 during office hours. Reservations for July and August are now open while bookings for September will open on September 1 at 8am SAST (South African Standard Time).

THE RANKINGS:

The Test Kitchen rankings in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna:

2012: TTK #74

2013: TTK #61

2014: TTK #48

2015: TTK #28

2016: TTK #22

2017: TTK #63

2018: TTK #50

2019: TTK #44

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All Comments 6

  • What a terrible culinary blow – I may never recover.
    Stuck overseas just now, there is no way I can get to Cape Town before the closure and I doubt I would get a table anyway.
    I thank Luke for everything and wish him well as he turns the page and moves on.
    To help cheer myself up I will take your hint – I have ordered a white peacock on Amazon.

  • all the changes are visible in so many areas.

    Hospitality that was priced ($1000+ per couple per night) is now available at a 20% of this.

    R2000 per person dinners (all in wine and extras) are history.

    Are local patrons now longing for quick & dirty R250 dinners because they are scared of the virus or is it that the dollar and euro budget tourists are gone?

    Any business that relied on foreign visitors is battling without a market. The ones that pivot will survive.

  • This is sad news indeed, but I guess we’ve all suffered in our own ways. I’ll keep this just between us and not on the dreaded social media, but I had a bad thought when first I heard about this. It’s about the wider issue of being a locavore. Like every other sentient food lover I drooled for ages to get to eat at TTK. For a full year I tried to get a booking: I was an independent tour guide back then and my guests would ask, plead. But they had a rather lousy system – you would have to phone three months ahead, on the stipulated day, and try your luck. I would get on the phone first thing on the holy day, and by the time I got through would be told, four x 3 months, “sorry, all booked”. However, if you knew God, had a foreign phone number, or were one of the bigger local tour companies, doors would open. I stopped trying and enjoyed many stupendous meals at La Colombe, The Food Barn among others. So what I’m getting at, I suppose, is that if you turn your back on your local common parishioners when you are flying high, it’s going to hurt when you land in a storm.

  • I’ve always admired Luke’s appetite for risk and innovation. Opening a restaurant like TTK in Salt River – the dodgiest part of town in those days, was a gamble very few people would take. I’m sure it gets exhausting, though, always trying to stay ahead of the pack. Incredibly humbling, to turn your back on the limelight like he has done. Respect.

  • I suppose it was good for the National psyche to have a restaurant up there among the stars, but what was there for the local yokels? Just an absurdly over-priced eaterie that, if you managed to get a booking, would make you feel that you should be grateful to get to spend a fortune on ecstatically described on the menu but meagre on the plate rarities. On on our single, never to be repeated, visit, in an attempt to salvage what was left of our expectations, we queried the non-appearance of the promised petit-fours, we were told that someone had ‘tossed the prep’, whatever that was: but no attempt to compensate for what had probably added considerably to the bill. Sure, a trivial point. But TKK, as is it so trendily called, was trading on a reputation it could not realistically sustain, in terms of value and service. The restaurants still surviving, do so by offering good food at affordable prices. Which was never TTK’s mission. So it was probably time to call it quits, COVID or not.