The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a worldwide economic slump, particularly in the hospitality industry where restaurants across the world were forced to close and lay off staff.

In South Africa, the same happened, but it was even worse as alcohol sales were not only banned, but couldn’t be sold in the now-closed restaurants. And when restaurants eventually were allowed to re-open, alcohol was still banned so patrons mainly preferred to stay at home and eat their ‘ready meal’ with their usual tipple….sigh!

But now that both restaurants are allowed to trade, and the alcohol ban has been lifted, many erstwhile popular restaurants can no longer afford to re-open, further impacting the beleaguered wine industry. Not so The Test Kitchen stable, brainchild of internationally renowned Cape Town chef Luke Dale-Roberts. https://www.thetestkitchen.co.za/awards/.

While Lockdown forced Luke and his wife and business partner Sandalene to slow down, they kept busy distributing perishables to staff and cooking for the homeless and vulnerable from their home. They entertained us with their lively Instagram tutorials and many tried to poach eggs and crisp rosti like Luke.

Due to the slower pace, their conversation turned to post Lockdown scenario planning, the future of restaurants in general and, more specifically, how they bring the communities they were serving together, particularly those with a passion for hospitality who are sidelined by not being able to afford formal cooking training. The Luke Dale-Roberts group has always had a culture of in-house training, mentorship and promotion, and so began the TTK Fledgelings initiative.

Due to Lockdown constraints, one of The Test Kitchen restaurants, The Shortmarket Club, was closed indefinitely. But the company still held the lease, so it could easily be re-opened as TTK Fledgelings where individuals could be trained in the art of cooking and hospitality by an internationally renowned chef and his team.

“The Test Kitchen Fledglings is an upliftment initiative with a fundamental philosophy of learning and teaching with passion and love” is the statement emblazoned at the top of their simple but delicious menu.

Unlike conventional apprenticeships and trainee programmes, recruitment did not take place in the conventional manner of answering an advertisement, Luke and Sandalene instead offered spaces on the programme to individuals that were known to them already and in whom they saw potential. So Vuyo Mzozoyana was working as a barista in a coffee shop nearby The Test Kitchen, while Bibo Magidiwana had been working as their son’s nanny.

The fledegelings are guided by mentors in every area of the restaurant. They are taught front of house skills, bar tending, kitchen management and cleaning, stock control and of course, how to cook. The cross training allows fledgelings to find their own best fit whilst imparting broad based knowledge. Currently the wine service is limited, the wine list being made up of small pockets of wine from the Test Kitchen cellar, but this also presents a training opportunity.

Fledgelings are paid and encouraged to mentor newer fledgelings. A school leavers’ certificate, willingness to learn, diligence and passion for the industry are key to becoming a fledgling.

As Sandalene says, the project is still in the “test pilot“ phase and will evolve with time.

For guests, this is dining with a conscience, in the most delectable way. So as we all venture out again, let’s try to pay it forward and frequent places like this where your dinner is paying it forward in a remarkable way and ripples through the entire food and wine production chain.

For more information visit: www.ttkfledgelings.co.za

Be kind. Wear a mask. Support local.

Lihle - fledgling

“ I am learning from the best chefs, and standards like The Test Kitchen. They are really helping young creatives.”

Eric - sushi mentor

“ Details tell on the end product, every dish, every piece counts, customers see you on the plate. This is what I teach.”

Bonke - fledgling

“ I was always watching chefs from the bar, now I get to be in the kitchen learning.”

Tarryn - chef mentor

“ It is a great opportunity for mentors to impart knowledge to eager learners in a happy, calm environment.”

 Image on the left: Chef Bonke


- Blog by Julia Moore