The Test Kitchen: Behind the Scenes
Crush gets an intimate, behind-the-counter look at The Test Kitchen – arguably the best kitchen in South Africa.
Want to completely understand the sensation of eating a chocolate fondant? You crack it open and explore the inside. Everyone is a personal expert when it comes to knowing what tastes make you close your eyes and melt away in the moment.
Like art, the taste of a dish is to some extent subjective to each individual’s palate but, as with most masterpieces, there seems to be a magical ease or flamboyance about what is presented in front of you. Look a little further, and this art is about precision, with exact measurements and procedures. Orchestrated by one master chef and carried out daily by a passionate team with varying levels of experience, to present sublime flavours and visual fantasies.
In the quest to explore the inside, Crush was lucky enough to gain a backstage pass to capture behind-the-scenes, on camera, how genius, Luke Dale-Roberts, manages a relatively young team to reach the heights that have made The Test Kitchen worthy of being awarded the Cacao Barry One to Watch Award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
The music is loud, the energy is strong and the chefs are beginning their well practiced, two and half hour, ritual preparation. Front-of-house team fold, chat, check stock, balance accounts and plan for the night ahead.
This is no normal job – it’s similar to the life of a stage actor or even an athlete – preparation is everything and everything comes down to a moment, or in this case, a dish.
Lined up, shoulder to shoulder or passing one another at break-neck speed, each chef has their own station and their dedicated role. There is no doubt which element they are responsible for. The way a professional kitchen works is the antithesis of an African government – it is fantastically transparent – one mistake and it is so easy to identify where it came from.
Wherever you look, someone is doing something that will result in a guest having one of the most extraordinary dining experiences of their lives.
Sauce, grill, sweet, baking and plating stations – in the Test Kitchen, there is one member of staff for every two guests. Each chef spends at least six months on any one station.
At times, chefs in the kitchen seem to work alone, solely focused on their station but in-between times, they come together to guide, share and to take a sip of water. There are noticeable levels that differentiate the chefs’ experience and these levels are given great respect amongst the kitchen team.
Each sauce is tasted and considered by the head chef. There are quick discussions as to why one sauce is too salty, or the consistency of another, slightly too light. “Good, good, good… do that sauce again”. And without hesitation, a sauce that doesn’t quite hit the mark is remade from scratch.
A whole pig’s head lies on one counter as an apparent nod to African produce and customs. Luke likes diners to have seen the cooked head before eating the exquisitely plated, pork cheek. It is reintroducing the idea of knowing what you are eating, and later, celebrating its flavour and the wonder of its transformation to the final dish on your plate.
Front-of-house staff is briefed on all of the guests for that evening. They, too, continue to look for any details that they can improve and prepare for, before the first diner arrives.
Starters are checked and plated, ready for a fluid transfer to the front-of-house team.
Chef, Luke Dale-Roberts, arrives confident that his team is perfectly producing their piece of the gastronomic puzzle. A quiet couple of checks, catch up conversations, tastes and he disappears up to his office.
“Chef wants the duck to test.” There is some nervousness (which is to be expected when you are cooking for Luke Dale-Roberts), but you get the feeling that most dishes are checked as though they were always serving Luke himself.
Luke Dale-Roberts stands and conducts – his attention often being drawn to many parts of the restaurant but he always has an eye on his stations and the details of the dishes going out. A chef whose intensity and desire for perfection are wrapped up in a relaxed, friendly demeanour. A tense smile reminds one that this is a chef not ready to rest on his laurels.
Dishes roll out that are so full of deliciousness that we dare not even begin to describe them. The kitchen seems to have settled into the groove and, surprisingly, seems slightly more relaxed than in the two hour preparation time which most diners would never even know exists. That’s the magic.