When I started writing restaurant reviews I little imagined I’d be headed towards a career as both obituary writer and war reporter, covering the carnage and losses as the restaurant industry fought tooth and nail against a series of oft incomprehensible and at times simply unbeatable lockdown restrictions brought on by the global pandemic.
So, it came as something of a reprieve when — shortly after the announcement of the famed The Test Kitchen’s closure — I paid a visit to Dale Roberts’s social upliftment initiative, The Test Kitchen Fledglings. An eatery I’d had my eye on for a while, both for the fare they were serving and the good they were doing.
The project, borne out of the first lockdown, takes Dale Roberts’s culture of in-house training and mentorship to the next level. It offers those with a passion for hospitality who are sidelined by not being able to afford formal training the opportunity to earn and learn on the job under the watch of the country’s best chef.
The recruits are taught everything from front-of-house skills, bar tending, kitchen management and cleaning to stock control and, of course, how to cook. The cross-training allows participants to find their best fit while gaining a thorough understanding of all aspects of the restaurant.
The space previously occupied by The Shortmarket Club looks very much as it did in its previous life. However, rather than mournfully reminisce — I had many a fabulous meal there — I was instantly excited by the energy, the hope, the passion and exuberance of the team who have now taken up chef’s knives, cocktail shakers and serving trays, and making the space their own.
Sure, I may have ducked for cover on hearing the rambunctious shouts from the kitchen as we entered — perhaps fearing the outburst was a result of yet another liquor ban or earlier curfew announcement — before being warmly welcomed by Sandalene Dale Roberts, Luke’s wife and the driving force behind Fledglings. It turns out the cheer was one of enthusiasm and is the standard greeting given to each table in appreciation for visiting.
The menu draws on Dale Roberts’s passions and projects over the years. There’s the incredible Asian flavours for which he is renowned, the classic techniques he has mastered, and some of his newer forays — including dishes from Ye Olde Test Kitchen pub lunch pop-up, the epic burgers he was sending out during the second lockdown — and, thanks to chef mentor Eric Manyenkawu, some superb sushi too.
I started with their signature, a Japanese pancake which arrives topped with delicately battered calamari, a burnt honey-and-soy glaze, chilli and a yuzu dressing, finished with bonito flakes that seemingly flutter as the dish is set down. It’s a casual take on all the big, bold flavours you expect from a Dale Roberts dish, and it reminds me a lot of a plate you’d expect from his acclaimed Woodstock eatery The Potluck Club — simply fabulous use of ingredients and texture.
Next up were scallops, coated in a fine popcorn dusting, to be dunked into the somewhat spicy, somewhat sweet, somewhat savoury gojuchang mayo. It’s a remarkable dish and to have up-and-coming chefs cook the notoriously tricky seafood so perfectly is no mean feat.
Then came the Asian influenced side of the menu which proved to be a great decision. The Vietnamese rice paper rolls filled with gorgeous, seared tuna and generous chunks of avo are mouthfuls of freshness in between the richer dishes, while the KFC “Korean friend chicken” is simply next-level delicious, the slightly sticky, spicy and crunchy exterior giving way to mouth-wateringly tender meat.
I’m also happy to vouch for both the burgers and the beer-batter fish, having enjoyed them both during the various Test Kitchen pop-ups. So, if it’s a heartier main or quick bite you’re after, they would be my first picks. Those with a sweet tooth would do well not to miss out on the decadent salted caramel banana split for dessert.
Accompanying this evening of convivial cuisine were an array of outstanding cocktails, the likes of passion fruit sake and grapefruit martinis. Fledgling Sibongiseni Gantsulana, previously a sculler and taking his first solo shift behind the bar, impressed with his balance of flavours and natural flare for the craft.
The evening ended with the team of mentors and fledglings alike gathered together, laughing, chatting and discussing the service.
Amid all the chaos the industry’s been through and will no doubt have to face to the other side of this pandemic, projects such as this give me hope.
I’m grateful for the likes of Luke and Sandalene who are nurturing the next generation of chefs, and for these aspiring chefs too, who in spite of the state of the industry, financial burdens and the countless other odds stacked against them, are giving it their absolute all and sending out some seriously stunning food.
The Test Kitchen Fledglings
88 Shortmarket Street. Cape Town
Dinner: Wednesday — Saturday 6pm-9pm
Lunch: Friday 12-2pm