Before Duncan Welgemoed opened Africola on Adelaide’s East Terrace in 2014, he had made a considerable splash as executive chef of the now defunct Bistro Dom. That would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his resumé, with meaningful stints at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, as well as The Fat Duck in Bray. But even though Bistro Dom represented considerable freedom after cooking under a glittering constellation of Michelin Stars, he craved a wild kind of unbridled freedom that conventional kitchens and conventional dining rooms could never provide.
Welgemoed had spent his career cooking himself away from his South African heritage, and from the cooking of his mother (who flies to Adelaide to prepare the secret family recipe of peri-peri sauce for Africola) and his chef father, and it was time to return to his roots armed with the experience of working in some of the great restaurants of the world. But for Welgemoed that didn’t mean plucking the soul out of South African cuisine with tweezers, but rather to embrace it in full flight, to have at it with a wild kind of energy.
That first iteration was built around a fire-fuelled grill, celebrating a very South African way of cooking, including cooking cow’s heads whole. Somewhat of a legend was born, a hirsute, tattooed iconoclast, often pictured cross-armed, and sometimes with axe in hand. His cooking was a riot of flavour, fire-licked, fun and delivered with both great skill and zero pretence.
In 2016, a kitchen fire caused enough damage to demand a reboot. This gave Welgemoed the chance to reinvent yet again, though more subtly this time, with a foray into North African cooking, and with far fewer bovine heads entering the dining room. While still embracing the grill, and the dishes of his upbringing, the menu now takes in more vegetables, pulses and fish, reflecting the diet of the north.
The finest produce, farmed properly and treated ethically, is the order of the day at Africola, and the wine offer charts a parallel course. Co-owner and front of house maestro Nikki Friedli curates the 70-strong list, with a particular focus on lo-fi producers who farm organically or biodynamically and leave well alone in the winery. Although the list trips around the country, with the occasional foray internationally, the natural makers of South Australia form its backbone.
The technicolour riot of the first incarnation of Africola’s dining room gave way to a more sophisticated vibe, too, though with no lack of colour or individual verve, with the bar and open kitchen still providing boundless energy to the room. And it is amongst the relative chaos that the serene artistry of Friedli completes the Africola picture. Sailing through the seeming anarchy, Friedli charts an effortless course, making the restaurant a place to feel at home, to be content that all will be well. Indeed, this is Africola’s mission, to be welcoming, to embrace its customers warmly with both its service and through the honest and deeply connected cooking.