Taking pot luck with Luke Dale Roberts’ new Jozi venture
I’m at the Potluck Club, where Carbon was in Rosebank, Johannesburg, using my fingers for some smaller things, a knife and fork for others. Chef Ebie is eating with a pair of black tweezers.
I ’ve just noticed the tweezers. Earlier, between his fingers, like me, Ebie had held his own little crisp, taco-sandwiched ceviche that, for a big-bite-sized thing, has a lot of flavour from black bean purée and avocado, some chipotle and even a bit of charred corn. We each chomped one down in one delicious mouthful and then burst out laughing. That was how we started our lunch, my eyes widening with joy as I realised how exquisite this mouthful had been.
Ebie du Toit’s the head chef at Luke Dale Roberts’ new Jozi Potluck Club. And this is where Dale Roberts’ Carbon stood until just a few months ago. Now it’s lighter, very light actually, so bright that it’s difficult to take photographs because the light slants all over, no matter which way you face. Look up to see the new, hand-painted flying fish paper lamps by Hannelie Coetzee. She had already created artwork for Carbon, some of which remains on the Pot Luck walls.
I recently asked Luke Dale Roberts why he closed Carbon so soon: “I thought we should do it sooner rather than wait and see. It wasn’t unsuccessful but it wasn’t at all like the Cape Town Test Kitchen that was booked out months ahead. It really came down to the way Joburg people don’t like being dictated to.” He smiled. “We had nine courses there that they didn’t choose.” Of course, the opposite is the case now. The Pot Luck is all about choosing three or four small plates each, deciding on an order pad with a pencil, and sharing the food.”
I also asked the Carbon question of head of the Pot Luck ‘brand’ in both Cape Town and Jozi, chef Jason Kosmas. He lives in Cape Town but was originally from Jozi. Dale Roberts credits him with starting the very successful Pot Luck Club concept, in Cape Town. Kosmas is already flying up regularly to visit the Jozi version and both he and Luke Dale Roberts were up together for the Potluck launch. However, chef Ebie is the constant head chef here. Kosmas said, “It seems that the Jozi crowd doesn’t quite like tasting menus. People even used to tell the Carbon management what music to play.”
I asked David, my friend who loved eating at Carbon and misses it. He commented that the perceived swankiness of the address, combined with the high prices, often seemed to him to attract show-offs, people who want to be seen with their friends to be able to afford to be there. They weren’t necessarily there to appreciate the food and would brag about being able to change menu items around and extend closing hours because they “can”. What he said reminds me of the gilded and obviously expensive Aurum at the Michelangelo, where Chef Michelle Biondi has something of a similar problem.
I’m not sure I agree that tasting menus are not for Jozi. They seem to be well appreciated at Embarc, at Sejour, just as off-the-top-of-my-head examples. Neither of them has obviously to-be-seen-at addresses. Of course, there are many more. One of the most successful places, famous for its themed tasting menus in Jozi in pre-Covid days, was Cube. For years it was booked out well in advance and there were no choices except dietary ones mentioned at booking time. Diners could not get enough of it. I think it is true though that Jozi does like new stuff and that its really food-avid diners or eaters want to be ‘in the know’ about places, chefs and dishes.
I attended the Pot Luck opening too and found the food strikingly good, extremely so, really, but from that it’s difficult to foretell how it would be at a regular lunch or dinner. I decided to come back a couple of weeks later and try it out without fanfare by myself.
Okay, there’d be just one of me and I knew the plates were for sharing but I’d still be able to appreciate what it was like in lots of ways. The menu is loosely divided into four sections anyway, so I might pencil on my table order sheet one from each. I’d have a Family Favourite like one of those hake sliders, a regular dish like linefish with mussels, something from Vegetarian, like the Broccoli Penang I’ve already noted, and something from the dessert section. Here I’d already pencilled the cheese board because I’d had a good taste of two of the glorious puds at the opening. I wanted to eat foods I love anyway, not necessarily what I’d tasted before.
Ah, something else I’d tasted at the opening was a knockout cocktail. The Pot Luck Club is known for them. Everyone was ordering a Thai Green Curry martini so I’d chosen a Pomegranate mojito. That Thai Green Curry one had really been the masterpiece, it turned out, not a ‘funny’ cocktail at all. Today I was choosing a glass of wine that I hoped would see me through all my small plates.
I introduced myself to Chef Ebie and we did the polite introductory things. And then, in a moment of something like madness, I chanced it.
I asked him, the head chef, if he would consider having lunch with me, albeit in his own restaurant. He looked a bit worried and checked the bank of six chefs at the kitchen section that’s open to the restaurant. He looked from them to the table and then suddenly he agreed. I realise now that he probably had those tweezers in his hand at that point.
I hoped he’d also choose four dishes and so we’d really be doing it the fully intended way. We discussed what I was noting on my order and he shot out requests for four or so more things rapidly, from all over the menu, though not a dessert. That’s how we started with those little taco ceviches.
The hake sliders I’d been looking forward to were a lot more elegant than expected. Perfect bao buns were steamed, enclosing crumbed hake and miso mayo. “Just squish down on them with both hands and take a bite. What do you think?” The textures of crunchily coated hake against the pillowy bun surprised me, with grown-up-tasting miso.
Now that we’d finished with the hand food and had moved onto another wonderfully crispy, fishy item, calamari, one of Ebie’s choices, he’d used those tweezers, the things that the head chef uses at the pass for tweaking a bit of this and that before it goes to a table. He’d used the tweezer to inspect the pieces and then pop them in his mouth. It’s a bit like eating with chopsticks. Okay, well I suppose my funny eating habit is eating with a teaspoon in private at home, especially for a bowl of comfort food like chopped soft-boiled egg and brisling sardines. ‘Fraid so.
I commented on the tweezers. Chef Ebie laughs. “I often forget…”
I knew that this chef at my table had once been a sculler at the Test Kitchen. Luke had told me, “Ebie’s got a helluva story. You should ask him one day.”
There we were. We were having Cape Malay pickle and atjar and a wow of an apricot and curry leaf salad with the crisped calamari. We talked about his working his way up. Ebie was quite shy about it but then he said, “That sculler job. I was so grateful and lucky to get it. It was a toxic business — me, before that.
“I didn’t finish school. I lived with my grandmother and I think she did as much as she could. She had no money for her own survival so it was a problem, I was a problem in the way. There was no father… well my mother had been a prostitute so…” He tails off. “You can’t say it was family really. It was bad every way. Difficult.”
Ebie was not looking down. He was just candid. That gave me a bit of a lump in the throat.
“I got myself into a toxic mess. When I got the sculler job I was just a junkie. I used to feel bad because my grandmother did not even have money to keep the lights on and I was the only male so I wanted to try and help in some way.” I fell apart a little at that but coughed and blinked hard.
“I asked and it seemed that dealing was going to bring the most money quickly and I got involved.” I swallowed as quietly as I could. “As a sculler I started looking at food in a new way. People paid lots of money for what I was cleaning off plates and I wanted to know what made it special. I paid attention to what other people in the kitchen were doing. Let’s have a cocktail?”
I still had’t settled on a glass of wine and wed been drinking water. Ebie asked for two elderflower margaritas but somehow we got gin instead of rum in ours. We were both surprised but the gin was Inverroche anyway and made a fine drink.
Arriving was the linefish I’d planned to eat – and who knew what else Ebie had ordered. Obviously, we both love fish. And I’m such a sucker for tamarind. I noticed he’s eating his part of the tasting plate with a knife and fork this time. He spooned some more of the laksa broth and cashew satay onto my plate. The mussels were marvellously pert and fresh.
“They just get quickly put through the stock”, he explained. I said the kabeljou was wonderfully kabeljouish. “Exactly. Nothing must interfere with the real taste of the food.”
In Cape Town, Luke sent Ebie to Silwood Kitchen to qualify. He had been working his way out of the scullery and up. He travelled to Mauritius as part of a pop-up there, won a cooking skills competition and went to France. He worked at the Roundhouse’s Salsify under Ryan Cole in his Chef de Partie years and carried on with Luke Dale Roberts, proving himself as a better and better chef.
Ebie doesn’t eat pork but is very proud of the part of our Mexican pork belly dish I ate, particularly the ancho dressing. I loved that smoky chilli too. There’s also the lightly acidic lusciousness of a pineapple and spring onion salsa with a smooth coriander emulsion. He said everything he is today is thanks to Luke looking at a junkie, seeing potential and believing in a person who had begun to think of himself as worthless and valueless.
We laughed again, maybe in relief, because Ebie smothers his young children with love and we agreed it’s just as well he only gets home at midnight and can only do that over weekends. He gets in here early, by his own design too, in the mornings. He finds it strange that from lovelessness he has all this brimming emotion for his family.
After looking over the small plate of sigh-gorgeous sous vide-prepared peri-peri chicken, Ebie springs up, picks up his tweezers and asks if I’ll excuse him. He raced to the kitchen, leaving me a lot to think about.
I still had the vegetarian broccoli dish to eat on my own, licked with coconut and peanut.
Presently, I saw Ebie among the rank of chefs behind the restaurant kitchen counter section. I was filled with admiration for him, for the food at this and maybe also the Capetonian Pot Luck Club being way better than it might have needed to be in its league, and for Dale Roberts himself.
The sweet things that I saw and even tasted at the opening were a peanut butter bomb with banana mouse and the crunchy honeycomb sweet. The other very pretty meal ender was a vanilla panna cotta with raspberry sorbet, white choc and a clever addition of yuzu in the form of pearls. I felt so darn lucky at having been able to share so many wonderful tastes with chef Ebie as I admired the PotLuck cheese board with a cinnamon orange marmalade and a pear confit. The cheeses are from small producers, still in the Cape, and I am hopeful these will soon be from our excellent local places, of which we have many and marvellous cheeses. DM
Potluck Club | Oxford Parks, 199 Oxford Rd, Rosebank | book online: https://thepotluckclubjhb.co.za/home/
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.