My earliest cooking memory is of baking a cake with my mum, a cake that contained her dad. The lemon and poppy seed was a popular kuchen in the mid-to-late 80s and seemed an easy, and innocuous, choice for the junior baker. Unless you are, as I was then, a small child who refers affectionately to her dead grandfather as ‘Poppy’.
Still, ever sentimental, I regarded it a fitting tribute and my only concern whilst eating a warm slice of grandpa was that we would one day run out of his fine black speckles and have to change recipes. On quiet afternoons, with mum otherwise occupied, my brother would pull the biggest stainless steel mixing bowl from the cupboard and begin his work. With a criminal’s focus, he’d set about concocting a ‘special treat’ for his baby sister. The first ingredient was usually peanut butter, followed by coffee grounds, vegemite, raw sugar, Milo, tomato sauce, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, vanilla essence, flour and a splash of milk. While I watched, he’d stir with tongue-out concentration and crack a sly smile when the mix was just right, before offering me the first (and only) taste. I gagged, he laughed, mum yelled and it happened more than once. Squirreled away in a dark corner of Cape Town’s The Old Biscuit Mill, chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ eatery The Test Kitchen conjures my bro’s culinary derring-do – plus skill and minus malevolence. At this the World’s 61st Best Restaurant (2013) I order the pickled fish of Angelfish ceviche, granny smiths, barbequed carrots, curry dressing and crème fraiche (110 rand). It is a particularly pretty plate – all sheer white fish and tiny, baby-finger carrots – but the curry dressing packs a bitter punch of dusty cumin and coriander that forces the delicate components to the floor. My main of “slow & fast” duck features ‘Luke’s truffle and foie gras egg’ and duck liver jus (160 rand). Alongside the pan fried and baked duck portions, both sweet, plump and soft, sits the illusion of an egg. White – tick, elliptical – tick; but where the glossy, rubbery surface of an egg should be, there’s a fluffy, imperfect expanse of crème fraiche mousse. Inside, instead of the runny sunshine of yolk, a glorious foie gras core awaits discovery. Light as air and rich as Warren Buffett, this googy-egg impostor is as essential to life as the former and generous as the latter. Heston Blumenthal once said of Luke Dale-Roberts, “a truly fascinating chef… he has this ability of putting seemingly incongruent ingredients together in such a way that they work amazingly well.” While my mum said to my brother, “stop trying to poison your sister and go to your room.”
*My lunch at The Test Kitchen was hosted by South African Tourism