There’s a clever foil at the entrance to Luke Dale-Roberts’s restaurant at The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa in Johannesburg. Step into a plush space and watch the chef-proprietor and his team in action – not in the theatre-style open kitchen sending out dishes to the assembled diners, but via a looped film projection in black and white, featuring scenes from The Test Kitchen, his famed Cape Town establishment.
‘We wanted to create a connection between the two restaurants,’ explains Luke, who, while not necessarily present at this venue on any given night, is certainly here in spirit. It’s a fact that the much-lauded chef has a high-octane energy that would exhaust most mere mortals, and it suffuses every carefully considered detail at the Jo’burg restaurant, not least of all in the skilfulness, creativity and flavours presented on one’s plate.
Luke Dale-Roberts at The Saxon – or simply Luke’s – began life as a pop-up restaurant a few months back. ‘We were dipping a toe in the water to see how it would go,’ says Luke. There were no surprises when word got out about its becoming a permanent fixture.
What’s most exciting for him is the collaborative nature of what transpires in the kitchen, a tightly run ship in the capable hands of head chef Candice Phillips.
‘The first menu comprised classics from The Test Kitchen, with probably 30 per cent new dishes. We designed the recipes to be foolproof and sent them to Candice to test,’ he says. ‘Now the two of us are collaborating directly. The idea is for each of us to bring our contribution and brainstorm new dishes, so that we eventually have a menu that runs independently.’
Candice, he notes, brings a ‘gentle feeling for food that’s almost empathetic’. Kind of like Yin to his Yang? He laughs. ‘It’s a “journey” of cooking together that we’re on, which presents both an opportunity and a challenge.’ Ideas come from experimentation with ‘millions of ingredients’ as well as forays into the hotel’s produce garden, now regularly replanted with more unusual seasonal vegetables.
Along with the development of the tasting menus, the training of the front-of-house team has been foremost. ‘It’s an important part of what we’re doing,’ he says. While he intends to spend as much time at The Saxon as required ‘to make sure everyone’s inspired and that the restaurant is evolving’, he wants it to forge its own identity ‘based on the service and the food, not just on the person who is there’.
For him, it’s about the people with whom he works. ‘Every step we take and every new thing we do is always based on the people involved.’ He’s referring to the brilliant young chefs who have made a name for themselves, working their way up through The Potluck Club, Naturalis and now The Saxon. ‘It’s a solid team,’ he says. ‘It’s never going to work if it’s all about me.’
Photographs Elsa Young