We’re profiling female chefs, cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.
After working in Australian and internationally with some of the industry’s most successful chefs and iconic restaurants, Africola’s head chef Imogen “Mo” Czulowski has experienced the hierarchy, the egos, the “boy energy” of the restaurant industry. Now, she’s treading her own path, staying true to her own unique style of cooking, creating and leadership.
From exciting dishes like “butter chicken” pumpkin to its celebrity guests like Katy Perry, Africola has become one of South Australia’s most talked about restaurants.
Adding to the buzz has been its head chef Imogen “Mo” Czulowski who has been making her own signature in the industry with an approach underpinned by sustainability, fearless creativity and empowering leadership.
Funnily enough, Mo didn’t jump at the opportunity to be head chef.
In fact, Africola’s brainchild Duncan Welgemoed had to beg her to come onboard.
When she finally bit the bullet, she made headlines.
“It was publicised very quickly so I had to hit the ground running,” she said.
“I felt like I had been thrown in the deep end. It was very much a sink or swim situation.”
But Mo kept her head above water as well her team of six chefs and three kitchenhands by establishing her own brand as a leader.
Never one to colour between the lines, Mo has breathed her own style into everything from the flavour combinations on the menu through to the working culture that inspires even the most junior staff to come up with ideas for new dishes.
“Quite often they’ll put up a dish and we’ll tweak it,” she said.
“I get really excited when my chefs have nailed seasoning very well and the kind of seasoning that Africola wants.”
This approach has helped her keep morale, excitement and engagement up even through some of the restaurant industry’s most turbulent and challenging times.
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💥 Africola Sound System Album of the Week 💥 “My album recco is Dear Future Self by Booka Shade. Two reasons: 1) this is a new release from Booka Shade and, 2) it’s a good reflection on what’s happening now with our future. Also, one thing I’m missing most is having a little boogie, and some of these tunes can take me back to the D floor. Although dark and melodic, there are some fun little beats on this album.” — Imogen, Head Chef, Ice Queen or Kitchen Mum depending on my mood. Snap by @gossipgeels
The alchemy of food
Mo knew what her true calling was at a very young age.
She was the youngest of three brothers and grew up by the beach in South Australia in what she described as a very European family.
It was here where she discovered the power of food in its ability to render people speechless.
Around the dinner table, all rowdy arguments and conversation would halt to silence as soon as her mother put food on the table.
“As a kid I used to think that was some kind of magical power she held,” she said.
Mo’s first job at the age of about 16 was at the award-winning restaurant Fino, which was located in Willunga at the time.
Through an apprenticeship there, she learned the alchemy of fresh ingredients and locally grown produce.
“I started working in restaurants quite young and I just got addicted to the hustle,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to work in kitchens.”
Mo then decided to travel abroad and expand her knowledge of food and cooking even further.
She ended up working at one of the world’s most famous restaurants, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London.
It was a radically new world of cooking that Mo had never experienced before and she worked under one of Britain’s greatest chefs Ashley Palmer-Watts, who played an integral role in the internationally acclaimed Fat Duck Group.
Mo was one of about three women in a team of 30 odd chefs working in a kitchen that operated like a part of the military.
“It was a tough kitchen,” she said.
While she learned a lot, the hierarchy, the egos, the “boy energy” and dog-eat-dog vibe led to an important epiphany.
“I realised what I didn’t want to do was that style of food,” she said.
“I didn’t really grasp much of the feel of the food there. I felt disconnected from it because it was so scientific and right down to the gram and I just don’t cook like that.”
She also wanted to work in a space that felt very different.
For Mo, this was an important realisation to have so early on in her career.
After working with some of the industry’s most successful chefs and iconic restaurants, she has stayed true to her own unique style of cooking, creating and leadership.
When 2020 hit, this allowed her to keep hope alive both for herself and everyone she worked with.
“I’m just taking life day by day,” she said.
Reflecting on her journey from fine dining and molecular gastronomy to the rock-and-roll world of Africola, Mo has found a deep appreciation for the restaurant industry.
It has never been a glamorous place to work.
But despite the “shit storm” she had to go through living on minimum wages, sweating through intensely long hours over hot fires and being inundated in the lives of everyone else in the kitchen, there has never been anywhere else she would rather be.
“The more you put in, the more you get out of it,” she said.
“There’s got to be an element of love in it.”