PEOPLE: Top chef: putting balls on a plate

luke.jpg Woodstock is a peculiar location for South Africa’s most recognised restaurant.

Victoria and Albert Roads carve arteries through lurid shop signage advertising zips and fasteners, mingled with autoworks, furniture upholsterers and lawnmowers. Trucks hurtle past windows secured with unsightly metal grilles, pedestrians on pavements clutch tightly to belongings. Chef Luke Dale-Roberts selected this environment to open The Test Kitchen in November 2010.

The restaurant blueprint appealed to locals and visitors from the start. Four years in, a five-month year-round waiting list is real. Last-minute cancellations are the way to buck the system.

Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul was at a nearby table the night I dined. He was impressed, saying as much to 2.2 milllion Twitter followers. The restaurant boasts ‘best in Africa’ and position 48 in The World’s Fifty Best Restaurants, and Eat Out’s Restaurant of the Year title for the second time.

‘Within a 10-minute drive I can get anything I need: carpenters, metalworkers, concrete … That’s why I love Woodstock so much,’ says a grinning Dale-Roberts, showing off barbed wire he nickel-plated to look like jewellery, to hold candy floss for petit fours.

Seeing sheep’s wool snag on fences gave him the idea: ‘I took this down the road to be made and they all thought I was a bit mad when I said it was for candyfloss and marshmallows.’ Whether you buy into the barbed wire analogy or not – keeping sheep in and criminals out – Dale-Roberts is subtly pushing an African sentiment.

So kicking off his 11-course gourmand menu, you’ll find Franschhoek trout with amasi (fermented cow’s milk). Four courses later, seared springbok has pureed turnip milk ‘stencilled’ decoratively on a plate alongside red cabbage. The headline act is the lamb smiley, a cleaned up version of the township special. A sheep’s brain, tongue and cheek pair creatively with capers and anchovy, kale and a cauliflower smear.

Anybody who’s eaten at The Test Kitchen knows that while the food is innovative and skilled, diners enjoy themselves. ‘You’re selling fun. People want to leave feeling they’ve had a good night. It’s not just about the food but also the banter with the waiter,’ says Dale-Roberts. He enjoys a chat himself.

The Dale-Roberts take on a Lamb Smiley: caper and anchovy emulsion, curly kale and cauliflower purée

It’s also the view of kitchen action as 15 chefs and interns chop, stir, sear or plate at their stations. ‘I put a helluva effort into training,’ says Dale-Roberts of his chefs. ‘I’ll give them everything if they give it back.’

The team is one chef short on the morning we chat, so Dale-Roberts fills in. ‘If I’m having a really shitty day I go on the grill. I find it really cathartic. You stop thinking about anything except getting it perfectly cooked.’

Dale-Roberts manages the pass four nights a week. Head chef Ivor Jones handles the rest. There’s bustle, activity and music in a creative warehouse-type space, while plates are swiftly sent out. Multiple waiters expertly explain dish complexities and the suggested wines or blended teas partnering them.

What of the creative process? ‘The menu has to evolve, offer new things. I keep a running list in my phone of what I want to try. I think people like working with me cause I always have some wacky idea,’ says Dale-Roberts.

Take the visual aspects of the ‘TK concrete ball’, where two concrete flowerpots arrive steaming, containing kingklip grilled on hot charcoal. The finished plate pairs the fish alongside potato-skin puree and other elements. ‘If you’re being clever, you’ve got to deliver. There can’t be too many theatricals either. It’s got to taste good and work,’ he adds.

‘Before, I was obsessed with what people thought. I’d mull on it for days. Now I’m proud of what we’re doing, and don’t hang on to it,’ says Dale-Roberts. His wife of 14 years, Sandalene, is integral to his business and happiness. She designed the restaurant’s pink copper chairs.

Thanks to systems being in place, Dale-Roberts finds time to kick a ball with his seven year old, and sneaks off for long-board surf weekends with chef mates. But the pressure to stay on top is big. ‘I’m a control freak, yes,’ he smiles. ‘Complete.’

THE TEST KITCHEN, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town. Tel 021- 447-2337, The Test Kitchen

A version of this appeared in The Times on 1 October 2014.