WORDS Farrin Foster
PICTURES Andre Castellucci
Chef Duncan Welgemoed has put Adelaide on the map with Africola — a restaurant that seems to double as a magnet for national
awards. But, as Duncan tells us, it’s not just his success that binds him to his adoptive home.
Duncan Welgemoed would never have come to Adelaide if it weren’t for a girl. Working in kitchens in London in the 2000s, Duncan fell in love – and he followed her halfway around the world. By 2010, he was fully installed in Adelaide with his
now-pregnant wife, trying to wrap his head around the city’s very quiet, very unfamiliar food scene.
Duncan – who grew up in South Africa’s Johannesburg and then near the border of Mozambique, before beginning a career in London kitchens as a late teen – was used to metropolises.
But instead of recoiling from Adelaide’s slower pace, Duncan saw opportunity. And his enthusiasm has paid off – it’s in this
adopted city he has made his name – first as head chef of Bistro Dom on the CBD’s Pirie Street, and then by opening Africola with collaborator James Brown in 2014.
Now, he’s rocketed into every Gourmet Traveller, GoodFood Awards, and Australian Financial Review list of top Australian
restaurants that can be imagined.
ADELAIDE: THE CITY OF POTENTIAL
“The big thing for me when I first got here, it was almost a clean slate,” says Duncan.
“There was so much potential to work with some incredible producers and winemakers in such a food and booze oriented city, I couldn’t say no to that.
“I suppose the catalyst was a chance to create a South Australian style that hadn’t been done before. Being an international
chef, I wasn’t really interested in what restaurants were doing in Sydney and Melbourne. I was looking at the city with fresh eyes and being really passionate and parochial about what we have here.
“But I suppose I’ve been pushing that agenda since I got here, from day one really. And now, finally – Adelaide is on the map,
Adelaide is being spoken about, and we have less young people leaving the state to go and live in Sydney and Melbourne and instead people are actually coming from Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide to work here.
“So, we’re stopping that brain drain and accumulating those worldly staffers, who are only bettering what we can do.”
ADELAIDE: A CITY OF GOOD TASTE
“I think one big thing, and it’s a testament to Adelaide diners – is that they are the hardest to please of any in Australia,” says Duncan.
“Their palates are, in my opinion, a lot more refined than any other diners in the country – purely based on the relationships
they have with agriculture, viticulture, and travel. That means your biggest competition is not the restaurant next door, it’s what a customer cooks at home, so you have to be better than that.
“The market in Adelaide is very difficult to break, but with that high critique of the customer and that knowledge – it really
pushes you to make the best product you absolutely can, instead of just riding a half wave and then disappearing a couple of years later because you’re not pushing yourself.
“For us, we’re constantly pushed to be better – that’s not us trying to climb up a restaurant list, it’s about being busy every night. And we are fully booked every service and we have been since opening. If anything, our turnover has increased four years on.”
ADELAIDE: A CITY OF COMMUNITY
“I think part of the reason Africola has been so well received is because it’s an informal restaurant with a ferocious work ethic,” says Duncan. “It’s that juxtaposition of this kind of party palace, but also with serious dining.
“But I suppose the big thing that resonates is really the community. People feel like they can loosen a couple of notches
on their belt here and not feel weird, or they can take their mother out for their 70th birthday here and not feel weird, or come as a loner and do a couple of shots at the bar and not feel weird.
“It’s that community base, that overarching sense when you can feel comfortable.
“But there are so many restaurants you go to where after the third or fourth time, it’s boring. We’ve got families that have
been here since day one and come once a week and are never bored by it. And that’s a testament to the community, and to what
we do, and to our team and to the producers that have the flexibility to always keep it interesting.”
AFRICOLA ON THE PAGE
This year, Duncan will release his first ever cookbook, which he says will be “an unreliable memoir, but a very reliable cookbook”.
It’s a chance for people who don’t live in Adelaide to get a taste of the restaurant by trying some of its techniques and flavour profiles at home, and for them to get to know the idiosyncratic chef through the stories that accompany the 135 recipes.