Africola chef Duncan Welgemoed: Expelled at 13, excelling at 34

'Coming from England to a place like Adelaide in the summer ... it's f---***ing magical.'
'Coming from England to a place like Adelaide in the summer ... it's f---***ing magical.'  Photo: David Solm

South African-born, French-trained and Adelaide-based, Duncan Welgemoed is a chef of many flavours. But the soundtrack is always Nine Inch Nails. Over the years, he's become Adelaide's unofficial spirit animal – mythical beast, troublemaker, conversation starter. His latest restaurant, Africola, tells a story close to his heart.

Growing up in the '80s in northern Johannesburg, an area heavily populated by expats and Jewish people ("second-class citizens in the eyes of the Afrikaans government"), Welgemoed, 34, describes it as being quite removed from the segregation that affected other areas thanks to its affluence and strong arts community. But no area was immune to the violence of apartheid.

"You know," he says, "it's beautiful but Joburg is f---ing hardcore. It's super violent. It doesn't make you any more protected to live in a gated community."

Welgemoed recognised Adelaide as an area that he could reinvigorate.
Welgemoed recognised Adelaide as an area that he could reinvigorate. Photo: David Solm

That's something he knows from experience. One Friday night, aged 12, Welgemoed was waiting to be picked up for a sleepover at a friend's house when the phone rang. His father, an ex-bikie, had been shot in a bar. But not before the perpetrator, stoned and carrying a newborn baby, had stabbed him in the arm, putting his father in intensive care for several months.

The shooter, afraid of what Welgemoed's father would do once released from hospital, turned the gas on and blew himself up in his apartment. Soon after, the family found the maid being raped next to the house. "She was coming home from a shebeen [unlicensed bar], and this guy followed her. My Dad came out and kicked the f--- out of him."

The family promptly moved – to the border of Mozambique. And it was here, at an evangelical Christian school, the only English-speaking school in the province, that Welgemoed was expelled at 13 for satanism. "I was getting into fights every day, and I hurt a couple of guys that had ganged up on me, but they couldn't expel me for defending myself." Instead, the school used his pencil case idols – Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and others – as an excuse to remove him for worshipping the dark lord.

I was like, 'Ah, I've worked in kitchens'. Except no. No I hadn't. Not at any level.

Being expelled in such a conservative community left him without much choice regarding his education. His parents didn't want to go back to Johannesburg, and all the other schools taught in Afrikaans, which he speaks only as a second language. "Learning at that age would have been impossible." As luck would have it, an English professor took him under her wing. "She schooled me, but not with general curriculum. 'Listen to this, read that, here's how to understand wine.' All the stuff that was actually needed."

Welgemoed occasionally returns to his home town, but finds it heartbreaking to see the neighbourhood he grew up in – a place he remembers as clean, vibrant and culturally diverse – now derelict and broken. The sense of danger, he says, is ever-present but even that becomes business as usual. "You just become so desensitised it just becomes another thing. I suppose that's my attitude anyway. You're always surviving. You just f---ing get up and get on with it."

At 17, he left South Africa for Britain with no particular plans and enough money to see him through for a month without work. Within six hours of getting off the plane, he'd been mugged in a Soho strip club – the only place he and his friends could find, apparently, to get a beer. The biff-magnet was threatened by a group of thugs with baseball bats, and though no one was injured, he left with empty pockets and an incentive to find work.

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The penniless backpacker saw an ad for a chef de partie at La Bouchee in South Kensington. "I was like, 'Ah, I've worked in kitchens'. Except no. No I hadn't. Not at any level. I walked in there and they gave me the job straight away. What I didn't know is that it was a massively violent all-French kitchen. So they were obviously turning over heaps of staff. But that was fine."

From there, he had a brief stint at the Ambassador Court Hotel in High Wycombe, a place that sounds as if even the kitchens would have carpets, but which he describes as horrendous. "But it was live-in. And I didn't have any money."

It was then Welgemoed got serious, working at a clutch of England's Michelin-starred restaurants including the Goose in Britwell Salome and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Interesting side note: though he and Firedoor's Lennox Hastie both spent some serious time at Le Manoir, they never crossed paths. "We were actually standing side by side at an event, and I was thinking, 'Where the f--- do I know you from?' I reckon I took over the fish station from him when he left."

A young Duncan Welgemoed, far left, with workmates at the Goose in Britwell Salome.
A young Duncan Welgemoed, far left, with workmates at the Goose in Britwell Salome. 

From Le Manoir, Welgemoed moved to the Fat Duck in Bray as the larder chef, which he hated. "It was a realisation of what I didn't want to do. It was just not my style. Coming from pan work especially, and then going into a kitchen which was all f---ing sous-vide cookery, everything apart from garnish was timer, timer, timer."

Sick of the prescriptive, hands-off work he was doing at the Duck, he returned to the pans at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. More importantly, just after leaving Ramsay, Welgemoed fell for an Australian girl. The pair married in Adelaide, and on discovering she was pregnant, decided to stay and raise their family in South Australia. Seeing the country for the first time was visceral for the chef, who'd spent his entire adult life to date in English kitchens. "Coming from England to a place like Adelaide in the summer ... it's f---ing magical. You've got the hills, beautiful wines, the beach. And everything's within 20 minutes of each other."

He also recognised an area he could reinvigorate. The culinary scene, post-'80s boom, had suffered a bit of brewer's droop. "It was pretty f---ing harrowing. [Influential Malaysian-born chef] Cheong Liew was no longer at The Grange, there were a couple of good regionals but nothing spectacular – not from the level of cookery I was used to in the UK. It wasn't like you'd drive 15 minutes away and there'd be a Michelin restaurant. Here, it was like, 'Ugh. Average.' There was a massive brain drain in terms of talent so I thought, 'Actually, I could do something here'."

So Welgemoed threw everything he'd learned about French cooking into Bistro Dom, which he ran until 2014. Late that year, he opened Africola, a restaurant that spoke to his history, his homeland, his taste. Reflective, reflexive, spicy, loud.

"I limit myself pretty hard at Africola. It has to be African-inspired. And it's good to have a really strong narrative. With Southern African cooking, for instance, the palate is very harsh, it's very direct. It's sour, hot, salty, sweet. There's no subtlety, really. I think my food's pretty tasty. And I always try to find that kind of balance. But flavour is first and foremost for me."

There's certainly an "all flair don't care" attitude here. But the brashness is for show. Behind the scenes, Welgemoed says, they're watching everything.

"I love watching the room, and I run the restaurant from the pass, because I plan the menu around each particular customer when I'm cooking, which is great because everyone gets something different. I might not send out shots for the 64-year-old table of two but I can see the young couple – the guy's definitely a chef, I don't know where from, he might be just a starting chef from the way he's dressed or the way he's eating. And then you can immediately turn them on. There's a lot of psychology when it comes to running a restaurant like that."

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: Add Violence by Nine Inch Nails

After-midnight snack: Tuna mayo sandwich

Kitchen weapon at work: My head chef, Imogen Czulowski 

Formative cookbook: The Mirabelle Cookbook, Marco Pierre White

Ninja skill: Drumming