I just took a peak at the Instagram of Africola chef-patron Duncan Welgemoed (say it with me: VEL-ge-mode). In the final scene of his current Insta story, viewers are taken on a fast, dizzying pan of a crowded, squeezy bar before being parachuted into an even more crowded, squeezier kitchen. A single one-word caption is plastered across the footage: “Fuuuuuck”.
Welcome to the hectic, high-energy world of one of Australia’s most potent cooking talents.
The South African-born, South Australian-based chef was broadcasting live from Sydney’s Dolphin Hotel where he was cooking as part of Delfino Aperitivo. An ambitious program that sees guests chefs take over the Dolphin’s stoves each week, Delfino Aperitivo’s schedule reads like a who’s who of cooking’s cool kids. Paul Carmichael from Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo was there. Louis Tikram, the Aussie chef behind Hollywood’s clubby, ultra-popular EP & LP, dropped by while in town from LA, and Attica’s Ben Shewry is bringing the curtain down on the series.
It’s good company to be in, certainly, but Welgemoed’s status as a cook to watch has long been cemented. Earlier this year, he was the driving force behind the eclectic food program of the Adelaide Festival. He also teamed up with legendary British chef Marco Pierre White to cater for an Airbnb event and, together with fellow Adelaide chef Jock Zonfrillo of Orana, cooked for visiting international food media as part of Australia hosting the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Then there’s Africola, the – to quote Welgemoed – “loud, weird and fucking tasty” restaurant he opened with his business partners in 2014. On any given night, the lively, colourful dining room will be filled with merriment and merry-makers, their evenings fuelled by loud tunes, potent cocktails, local natural wines and a procession of out-and-out delicious things. Crisp swatches of chicken skin plus pan drippings and white bread equals one of the more remarkable sandwiches in Australia today, while a deeply savoury whole roasted cauliflower puts paid to the notion that meat is the only thing that takes to a grilling on a braai, the South African barbeque. And how many chefs do you know that use native finger lime to freshen up a powerfully smoky baba ganoush? While the menu doesn’t exactly defy categorising – African is the pigeonhole most file the restaurant under – the cooking is worlds away from boerewors, biltong and the rest of Africa’s best-known edible exports.
“African food is super, super, super broad,” says Welgemoed, one of the Australian chefs that will be making his Margaret River Gourmet Escape debut at this year’s event. “We’re talking about a continent. It means different things depending where you’re from. Africa has a long history with gastronomy and spice. There are 54 independent countries in Africa and so many of them are so rich in gastronomy. We touch on our favourites as we can, but in a modern clean depiction not normally associated with African cuisine.”
When the restaurant opened, its menu championed the meaty, robust and barbeque-heavy flavours of Welgemoed’s native South Africa. Last year following a forced closure and renovation after a fire damaged the restaurant, the food switched tack and looked to the Mahgreb – a cosmopolitan, diverse region encompassing much of northwest Africa – for inspiration. It’s not a pocket of the world many think about when it comes to food (let alone be able to point to on a map) but it’s this tireless interest to dig – and cook – deep(er) into African history that’s helped put Africola on the map both locally and internationally. No one in Australia or Africa (or anywhere else, for that matter) is cooking food like Welgemoed’s.
“How does a chef find his own style and something that’s unique? It’s very difficult without emulating things,” says Welgemoed. “Noma works because it’s there and they lean on their history and ingredients, but how many restaurants emulate what they do? Fucking tonnes. We’re not trying to be a fine dining restaurant. Our presentation is natural but ugly-delicious, it’s effective and it’s simple on the plate.”
Despite this change in direction, fire remains a constant in Africola’s food: a good thing considering that Welgemoed is one of the chefs cooking as part of this year’s Feast in the Forest series. Held in a hidden forest at Leeuwin Estate, these lunches and dinners feature chefs from around the world manning the grills and cooking barbeques with a difference, not least because this year’s line-up features a fascinating cross-section of cuisines and styles. Among the other fire-starters that will be cooking at Leeuwin Estate as part of the series: Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate from Sydney’s Argentine-rockabilly stronghold Porteño; Canadian hunter-gatherer Michael Hunter of Antler Kitchen & Bar in Toronto, and Roger Mooking of the Food Network’s Man Fire Food who will be hosting the feasts. Sweeten the deal with good drinks and a magical setting surrounded by karri and jarrah trees and you’re looking at an outdoor cookout you won’t want to miss.
Margaret River Gourmet Escape runs November 16 - 19
Broadsheet is a proud media partner for Margaret River Gourmet Escape. Tickets to the festival are on sale now.