After a recent sample of the new winter tasting menu at The Test Kitchen I sent a fairly innocent Tweet announcing how much I had enjoyed it. I had eaten at the revamped The Tasting Room in Franschhoek two weeks prior to that and the Tweet basically said something along the lines of both meals being on par with anything I have experienced abroad. A fairly cynical response came back from someone with the opinion that my meals were good because “both chefs are foreign”.
For me, the success of a top kitchen has to do with a lot of people. Not just the chef with his/her name on the door. There are plenty of sets of hands involved in getting a finished dish to the table. Apparently Luke agreed, because he invited me for a coffee to chat a bit further about the whole thing.
“Cape Town can compete with most cities in the world,” is the way he sums it up. “There is plenty of talent if you know where to look. And I’m not just talking food. Art, design – this place has got it all.” When I press him further to comment on the theory that young chefs coming out of catering colleges don’t have the loyalty to stick around and earn their stripes he says simply that it “depends on the person. It’s like any industry.”
The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club are both as good examples of this as you’re going to get. Ivor (head chef at Test Kitchen) has been with Luke for more than seven years. In other words, they’ve been sharing a kitchen since La Colombe days. Luke is full of praise for Wesley too (who heads up Pot Luck Club) and pays him the ultimate compliment by telling me that he “reminds me of myself at that age.” According to Luke both guys are always looking to push harder and “re-invent the wheel.” Something that is becoming harder and harder to do in the food scene.
The quality of the experience at both restaurants rests heavily on the service too. Which is awesome. Simon handles The Test Kitchen. Markus handles Pot Luck Club. Both nail it. They do this by giving the diner “the choice of explanation.” In other words, if you really want a full definition of each course – and why it pairs with wine – of course you can have it. If you just want your food served quickly with a good smile and a full glass you can get that too.
Onto the winter menu. That’s why I was there in the first place after all. My overriding impression of the dinner was the ability to pack all those seasonal ingredients in without making it heavy. Beetroot, turnip, butternut, sweet potato, various mushrooms. They’re all there. I want to know how he manages to pull off an 11-course affair without rolling people out the front door. “Yeah, that was a huge challenge. But if you look closely you’ll see only one course has cream. And there’s hardly any starch. You won’t find things like a thick heavy jus either.” (Ironically the dish I enjoyed least was the “starchy” option where rice balls made an appearance)
The entire menu has strong Asian influences with ingredients, but with techniques too. A chawanmushi is basically an Asian custard and it makes an appearance in both savoury and sweet forms. A highlight to watch out for is the best palate cleanser I’ve seen in South Africa. I don’t want to give too much away but it involves: sorbet, a branch, homemade bitters and a spritzer bottle. It’s pretty neat. Another dish involves a smoke machine and glass bulbs for presentation, while yet another utilises a test tube to hold an impossibly good sauce. In other words, there’s a lot more theatre than I can remember previously. Luke agrees and when I ask him the challenge of pulling it off without being cheesy he says the skill is to do it absolutely perfectly. “You can make the odd mistake when you’re cooking but when you do it with dishes like that you end up looking like a wanker.” Needless to say, Ivor was flawless with these. (As he was with the entire service). A notable touch is apple used as a way to introduce acidity where needed. I first saw this in a trout dish that Luke has had on previous menus and it is carried through in the winter version. It is pure class.
The wine pairings are refreshing too. I say wine pairings, but quite a few of them aren’t wine at all. “We didn’t want too many grapes,” is the seemingly obvious explanation I get. Instead, infused sake pops up more than once. And it’s superb.