Duncan Welgemoed swears a lot. This isn’t an unusual character trait for a chef. If you haven’t worked in the industry and experienced it yourself, you’ve probably seen it on shows like Gordon Ramsey’s The F-Word. For authenticity’s sake, we only edited out half of Welgemoed’s swearing. That still leaves a little under a hundred F-bombs to contend with. We'd like to think this provides you, the reader, with a more authentic understanding of Duncan's character.
That’s not to say he's aggressive in any way. The opposite – he comes across as part wild man, part nice guy. Or as one of his staff described him, “A crazy cat, but a good one.”
Beyond the sailor’s vocabulary, the owner of Adelaide’s critically acclaimed restaurant Africola was born in South Africa but spent the better part of the past two decades travelling the globe working in some of the world’s finest culinary establishments. He’s shared a kitchen with big names like Blumenthal and Ramsey, as well as a whole bevvy of other talents. He earned a Michelin star at 19 years of age (which is bloody mind-blowing), he’s the favourite chef among rock stars and pop divas like Tool’s James Maynard Keenan and Katy Perry, and you might’ve even seen him on Network Ten’s MasterChef. If the rumours are true, we’re about to see a lot more of him in the future. We can’t say anything because he can’t. Just keep your eyes peeled.
Tell us about Africola. What’s the vibe there?
I suppose it’s a flexi restaurant, in the sense that it’s accessible, community-driven, loud, fun, and full of booze and sexy food at a great price point. It’s a unique restaurant because it’s staff driven. It’s the personality of myself, of my front-of-house manager and my designer, James Brown.
Owning a restaurant is a full-time gig. Do you get much time to loosen up and get into the social side of things?
Not really, it’s a bit hard to do that. I mean, when I’m free I obviously hang out with all my hospo friends and we do stupid shit. But no, I don’t put on a suit and go hang out with a bunch of fucking normies. I can’t relate to anyone outside of the arts or hospo, to be honest. It’s just the hours we work; it’s kind of like sex workers, artists, musicians, winemakers and hospo workers – we work fucked-up hours when people are sleeping or too fucked or having a day off. That’s when we come alive, and that’s why we all move in the same circles. But I mean, who the fuck wants to hang out with normal people?
What do you cook when you’re at home?
I plan it a week in advance, so there’s always a central theme. I cook every single day, and I actually cook more at home than I do in the restaurant. There, you’ve got it prepped, you put it out and send it to the masses. But at home, it’s different because you’re starting from scratch and you actually curate it. So last night, we got a whole mulloway and did it Viet-style, and I made a curry sauce from one of my favourite chefs in the country, a chick called Thi Le from a restaurant called Anchovy in Melbourne. She’s got this weirdo curry sauce that she serves with steamed fish – it’s fuckin’ awesome.
Africola is a super-vibrant place. What’s the most important aspect of creating a good dining experience?
First and foremost: hospitality. We carry that across to pretty much every project we do. People need to feel welcome and comfortable and ready to have a good time. At the end of the day, you’ve got all walks of life coming to your joint; some have had good days, shit days, tragedies, celebrations – everything. So you really have to get everyone on your level for them to have a fucking great time, which also means there’s no place for fucking egos.
We don’t care where you’re from, we don’t care if you’re fucking Katy Perry or someone celebrating their 75th birthday – the experience is tailored per person, and everyone is going to get a fucking shot of bourbon at the end of the night.
It’s the middle of summer – what’s the best way to be king of the barbie?
The first thing you do is take your gas barbecue and your Hahn Premium Light and throw them in the fucking bin. Then buy some real beer and start using charcoal or wood. That’s first and foremost. Before you can even call yourself a braai or any bullshit like that, you’ve got to be fucking with actual real fire, not with a gas hotplate.
What’s your recipe for the ultimate ‘manwich’?
I’d say a prego steak sandwich off the barbecue, which is a Johannesburg/Mozambique/Portuguese rump steak that you marinate in a mixture of tomato sauce, peri-peri sauce, barbecue sauce, red wine, loads of garlic and bay leaves. Then you’ve got to have a soft, white roll with loads and loads of margarine. It’s spicy, it’s sweet and it’s caramelised. And obviously, rump steak is the king of all steaks for me, because it has the most flavour and a really beautiful cap of fat that you can char. Chuck that on your roll for a really good barbecue entrée.
The food at Africola is regenerative. What does that mean?
Regenerative food has minimal impact on the environment. It’s actually working with nature and regenerating it with abundance as opposed to sustainability, which can mean a variety of things. The way the environment is now, we don’t really need to sustain what we have – we need to regenerate it. If you look at our seafood, we only use stock like calamari, sardines and Occy (when it’s in season). Stuff like that is pretty much baitfish you can catch by the tonne. That, as opposed to, “Oh, let’s get fucking tuna on the menu” – something that (a) we shouldn’t be catching, and (b) if we’re breeding it, it consumes so much food. It’s really bad for the environment. There’s also regenerative farming, which involves land with old husbandry attached to it, biodynamic breeding of animals and pretty much anything from the Polyface Farm catalogue, which is the stuff we serve at Africola.
You worked with Gordon Ramsey. Is he as hardcore as he appears on TV?
He’s a lot more hardcore. I mean, that’s just what you expect: you do your job, you’re fine; you don’t do your job, well there’s no time to be like, “OK, can we sit down and talk to HR and see what we can do to facilitate your growth?” None of that shit. You’re running a section, you’re in service, there’s three Michelin stars – you fuck something up, it’s going to fuck the entire kitchen, which is going to then fuck the customer experience, who is paying for a $1000 dollar or so experience that little Jimmy over there has just fucked up for everyone because he had a fucking rough night. Gordon’s not going to be happy.
Spaghetti bolognese – it’s the king of dishes. It’s rich and, textually, it’s the best because noodles are awesome. And it’s healthier than heroin, keep that in mind.
What would you change about the hospitality industry?
The emphasis on male chefs – it’s completely fucked. I just pulled out on Saturday night after I was nominated for best chef in the Gourmio Guide that’s coming out, and I told them to get fucked publicly because out of 19 chefs that were nominated, not one of them was a woman. I told them I don’t want them writing about me, I don’t want to be nominated for anything, pull me out of the guide. It’s bullshit.
Alright, I want to impress a girl. What’s one easy dish that might get me laid?
I would say roast chicken. You can always keep it as light or as heavy as you want it. Just roast it with plenty of garlic, finish with loads and loads of fucking lemon and a nice little spice to go with it. In the roasting pan itself, chuck some leeks and baby onions, and cook it all together. Then just make a dressing out of all the chicken juices that run off, pour it into a bowl, add heaps of lemon juice, and then just dress the whole fucking thing with it.
I’m a typical Sydney snob. Sell Adelaide to me.
Well, let me put it this way: I can get a drink after fucking midnight, and that’s pretty much it. That’s why it just fucking destroys Sydney in one argument. Any rock star, guest chef, any of my mates from all over the country or all over the world, I bring them to Adelaide, I show them around and they want to move here. I take them to Sydney and it’s like, “Cool, now what? Oh, I guess we’re going to go back to your hotel room like a bunch of fucking weirdos.”
You recently got busted for illegally harvesting seaweed. What’s the story there?
I mean, that was blown completely out of context. I’m an ambassador for the Department of Primary Industries and Regions, South Australia [PIRSA]. My whole point was reducing the fees for foraging because lots of chefs are doing it without actually getting a permit, because they can’t afford it because they are fucking expensive (a permit costs $4622 - Ed.). So, all of a sudden, chefs and foodies are hurting the environment because no one’s speaking to PIRSA to try to get those fees reduced. But after the media attention, PIRSA came to the table. And I’m more than happy to work with anyone who wants to go and forage and actually learn about the environment.
What’s the most important aspect of creating a new dish? Besides how it tastes, of course.
Balance and gut fill. What is that doing to your mouth? How is it making you feel? Is it making you feel full? Is it too rich? What’s happening in your stomach? It’s got to be completely balanced – it’s the number-one thing I look for in a dish.
If your restaurant were a playlist, what songs would be on it?
I would say if I put my restaurant to one album, it would be the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, straight up. We’ve got Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A, Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galás, Jane’s Addiction and Rage Against the Machine.
You’ve got a history of cooking for musicians. What’s the crossover here?
I started cooking for bands at the Adelaide Showground. I still do it and I will be for 2018 in a very big way, which I can’t talk about at the moment. At the end of the day, we’re both creating something, we both have a craft. For me, I always wanted to be in a big band, but obviously, reality kicks in and I got a real job. But always being obsessed with music, having that crossover is pretty important. Music is very, very important to most people’s lives, just as eating is, so marrying the two is great. I’ve been that go-to restaurant for loads of artists and bands, like Faith No More, Tool, Lamb of God, Katy Perry and Major Lazer.
Have you had any weird requests from any of the musicians you’ve catered for?
Rammstein wanted orange juice squeezed by hand five minutes before they came off stage, then a shot of mezcal, brown sugar and a slice of orange. We got pretty fucked-up after their set.
I heard you’re thinking of getting into winemaking. Would you be doing that full-time and hand over the reins of Africola to somebody else?
That’s where I’m heading. I’ve done vintage before, and I’ve got a six-year plan, where I want to be doing vintage in Australia and elsewhere – so two vintages a year for the next six years. But I don’t think you could ever be a full-time winemaker. Loads of them have substance abuse problems. I’ve got an outlet to sell the booze. Half the job of being a winemaker is selling the booze, so the other half is obviously the farming elements, the viticulture and creating vintage that lasts. The process takes about three months and then managing that wine until you’re ready to bottle. So it won’t actually take heaps of my time at all to do, especially with the quantities I want to make. But I think understanding the process of something that is as useful as winemaking and serving that product in your restaurant is pretty cool.