Xhosa sushi chef to run new Sandton sushi bar: Umai

His spotless whites give him away: he’s the new sushi chef at Sandton’s urban sanctuary, The Maslow Hotel. And he’s a man on a mission: to teach South Africans about Japanese quality sushi.

UmaiChefXhosa sushi chef Eric Manyenkawu, 34, bows deeply in greeting, his mien Asian polite: his calm demeanour at odds with the frenzied energy of Africa’s business hub, Sandton.

His training, by traditional Japanese master chefs at the Cape Town based world acclaimed Nobu, means that his insides are always calm – controlled steady.

Manyenkawu’s love affair with Asian cuisine began in 2008, while he was at Arabella Hotel in Hermanus.

“I started as a cleaner at Zevenwacht Restaurant in Kuilsriver and was asked if I wanted to train as a chef. I struggled initially as I spoke very little English!

“But I got through three years of training, then spent three years working at Zevenwacht before moving to the Arabella.”

There, a man called Unchaun Lee changed Manyenkawu’s life.

“I was curious about this food called sushi. It was totally different from the cuisine the chefs I’d worked with cooked – mainly German and Italian.”

It was Lee who taught Manyenkawu that his insides had to be “as white as your outsides”.

Umai3Sushi, he says, has to be made with love. And, he insists, fish should only be cut when you are calm and centred.

Just before the start of the World Cup, Eric moved to the One and Only where he worked with the foul mouthed TV chef, Gordon Ramsay in his kitchen at Maze.

Manyenkawu remembers Ramsay as “magical”.

The language in the kitchen might have been as blue as the Cape Town sky, and Manyenkawu says you could hear Gordon swear from a good distance, but he says he learnt a great deal from the super-chef.

Manyenkawu remembers the day his life changed forever – April 18, 2012: it was the day he asked to be transferred to Nobu where he could work full time on sushi and Japanese cuisine.

Umai2He learnt here that not all sushi is alike. He learnt how to select the best fish; how to gut it and cut it; how to store it.

He learnt that the rice had to be cooked gently, with tenderness, so that every grain was separate.

Now, he’s ready to fly on his own – to run his own Sushi bar which will operate out of The Lacuna bar in the Maslow.

“I’m hugely excited. It’s ridiculous how busy the Lacuna gets, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Still, its one of Sandton’s hottest hot spots, so bring it on!”

When she’s ready, Eric’s wife Babalwa and their three children Sipho, 8, Cuma, 4 and Inathi, 2 will join them in Johannesburg.

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