What do a tequila cocktail, a skateboard, the world’s most celebrated boxer and a nanny have to do with contemporary South Australian restaurant and bar Africola? Tracey Porter investigates.
Duncan Welgemoed has little time for ‘cock craniums’.
Just like the foul-mouthed restaurateur-turned reality star under which he fine-tuned his skills early on in his career, Welgemoed believes the key to running a successful food service business comes down to four essential elements.
“Be better than the other guy, respect the reviewers who actually get paid to review, be a part of the hospo community and above all else, don’t be a dickhead because word-of-mouth is still a thing.”
It is a mantra that has served the South African-born chef well in the years since he left his native Johannesburg to seek fame and fortune cooking on the world stage.
It was as a child that Welgemoed’s education in food first began. Yet it was through a trusted caregiver that he learned to appreciate the value of his ingredients.
“It was my nanny, Julia, who taught me about traditional African dishes,” he says. She was the one who taught me how to slaughter animals, make chakalaka, find the best produce at a market, and respect seasonality.”
It’s a long way from South Africa to South Australia but somehow that’s where Welgemoed found himself following a decade working for Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay across the UK and Europe.
Forging his reputation at Adelaide’s renowned fine-dining space Bistro Dom, it was a chance booking at a pop-up space that introduced him to current business partner James Brown.
Brown, an illustrator/artist/designer who also owned a pop-up restaurant company called The Happy Motel, had had a foothold in the hospitality industry for some time, after a period designing wine labels early in his career led him to collaborating on a number of high-profile restaurant fitouts.
Brown booked Welgemoed to cook for him at a space he had at the Adelaide Festival of Arts and instantly recognised someone he could go into business with.
“Opening a restaurant isn’t just about food—the whole concept as a package has to work.”—Duncan Welgemoed
“Duncan came and cooked for us at one of the events; he spit roasted a kangaroo and served items from a smoking barrel (the dinner theme was roadkill). From there, we asked him to join The Happy Motel and we started doing more weird shit together,” recalls Brown.
“In late 2014, a two-level space below Brown’s heritage-listed studio across the road from Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens became available and the pair seized upon the idea of turning their long-held vision of opening their own restaurant into a reality. They called it Africola.
“It sort of started via Mexicola, a name based on a drink [made up from] tequila, coke, lime, salt and Tabasco,” says Brown.
“After creating Mexicola in Bali, I had a skateboard accident and landed in hospital. While in hospital I was watching the movie Facing Ali and saw the man formerly known as Cassius Clay skipping in Zaire ahead of [his bout] with George Foreman. In the background were the words of the event sponsor Afri-Cola. At that point I knew Duncan and I had to create something African to follow his roots.”
Welgemoed felt similarly. While acknowledging at the time that a chef and an illustrator going into the restaurant game wasn’t an everyday occurrence, he says he was also confident the pairing would be successful.
“Opening a restaurant isn’t just about food—the whole concept as a package has to work. Having someone to help lay the conceptual foundations to take your restaurant from a place to eat to a product is important. James is someone I trusted to help build Africola as a brand as well as a restaurant.”
Seeking to meld the concept of the Johannesburg shebeen (unlicensed bar) and braai (BBQ joint), the pair spent just three weeks on construction before throwing open the doors to Africola in November 2014.
The restaurant occupies around 110sqm of inside space and 80sqm of useable outside area with the site’s basement spread over a further 250sqm.
With Welgemoed taking care of the menu concepts, it fell to Brown to help put the pair’s ideas into practice and design the look and feel of the space.
He says he drew heavily from southern African influences including political propaganda posters and Somalian ‘funk deluxe’.
Accommodating a central hearth into the front-of-house layout over which much of the food is prepared, the interior is centred around the concept of hand-stitched Ghanaian ‘Asafo Asante’ (traditional warrior) flags that have accompanying ‘Posuban’ constructions (fortified posts made from cement and brick). These posts are decorated with artwork representing the values of the traditional warrior groups incorporating animals, mythological figures and cannons.
Brown says, “These places are normally made by the owners and painted in two-tone, so we did that. They often use leftover paper from tinned food print runs as wallpaper. We wanted folks to have fun with a little bit of magic included. I started to hear Duncan’s crazy Jo’berg upbringing: the sacrificing of animals to the braai and learning how to attend to the coals since a kid. Hearing stories of his family’s peri peri chilli sauce business and the guarding of the secret recipe—it was all super inspiring.
“I wanted Africola to be like a virtual holiday but you toe a fine line of making something original and not tokenising a culture—all in the name of Duncan needing a space to sacrifice vegetables and well-grown juicy meats”
Restaurant price points range from $10 to $35 with the kitchen producing around 75 covers per sitting.
With both the wine list and menu changing weekly, the demands of the job require Welgemoed to be in the kitchen five days a week from midday to midnight. He says he escapes by spending time with his family, relaxing with friends and—when no one is looking—playing Xbox.
The restaurant employs six kitchen and eight front-of-house staff, each of whom undergoes regular training to ensure a close relationship with external suppliers.
Everything is done in-house including butchery and baking, and staff work directly with farmers, wine makers, brewers and distillers, Welgemoed says.
“We then have the knowledge to talk about the processes as we have the broad understanding of the products we are selling.
“We also collaborate a lot with other chefs and winemakers so having our team work with these individuals gives them brilliant exposure to different styles and excellent networking opportunities.”
Welgemoed says that despite its popularity, the restaurant has no marketing budget and has not built its solid reputation on the back of discounting or third-party promotions.
While Africola does have a small social-media presence, Welgemoed says he and Brown prefer to rely on old school word-of-mouth to generate new business.
“We do what we do and people generally want to talk about it and that’s awesome. More operators should be confident enough with their product or business to have an online voice and personality which generates interest rather than waste their money on marketers, discount books, paid ads in local travel booklets or free meals to bloggers and amateur photographers.”
Welgemoed concedes the biggest challenge he faces is controlling costs in the face of a fluctuating market, staff turnover, finding a rhythm and perfecting a product.
“That shit takes time,” he says.
Determined to ensure Africola stays ahead of the game, the restaurant has recently undergone a small renovation that sees a more contemporary offering on show. This has resulted in the construction of a new, much larger, wine cellar complete with a living wine program led by restaurant manager Nikki Friedli and a more vegetable-heavy menu that Welgemoed believes will “change people’s previous expectations of us committing ritual animal sacrifice with fire”.
Yet despite the aesthetic and menu changes undertaken at the restaurant and the glowing reviews, it is what lies at its core that Welgemoed believes contributes most to its ongoing success.
“Our demographic is very broad, which is great. I think anyone that digs delicious food and booze in a fun environment gets what we do.
“But the thing I’m most proud of is my staff. Some of them have grown so much and in turn won acclaim themselves. My senior staff, in particular Nikki, have really made a mark in the industry and that makes me so fucking proud.”