Words: Stephanie Weil
Eric Manyenkawu bows deeply in greeting, his mien Asian polite: his calm demeanour at odds with the frenzied energy of Africa's business hub, Sandton.
Photo credit: Yolanda van der Stoep
It’s a happy quandary, trying to make sense of this young Xhosa man whose roots lie in the Eastern Cape, in East London, where he was born 34 years ago.
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.
But it’s been a long and adventure-filled journey to get here. Eric arrived in Johannesburg early in August for the first time ever and has been swept up in the super speed at which this city moves.
“Jo’burg!” he says, eyes wide, “Everything here is so… fast!”
But his training, by traditional Japanese master chefs at the Cape Town based world acclaimed Nobu, means that his insides are always calm – controlled steady.
His 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 – remember, 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 Eric’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 Eric that his insides had to be “as white as your outsides”. Sushi, 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. Eric remembers Ramsay as “magical”.
The language in the kitchen might have been as blue as the Cape Town sky, and Eric says you could hear Gordon swear from a good distance, but he says he learnt a great deal from the super-chef.
Eric 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. He 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.
The Lacuna Bar gets a facelift
The Lacuna’s distinctive greys and the monotones have been replaced with warm earth colours – bronzes and golds – that make the bar area gleamingly inviting. The Maslow Hotel, an urban sanctuary in Africa’s business hub Sandton, services a mostly corporate business clientele.
Says Etienne Hanekom, the interior designer responsible for the new look: “The bar reflected the monochromatic colours often associated with corporate interiors. I brought in warm metals – bronze and copper and gold, with a patterned ceiling. The bronze mirror table tops reflect the warmth of the ceiling light.”
The seating in the bar area was also reconfigured for easier movement and better social access. “We put in booths for bigger groups, incorporated the veranda into the space for an indoor/outdoor flow and brought in plants to liven up the area – plants that thrive in low light.” A strong blue carpet was added with leather furnishings and the transformation was complete.
Said Etienne: “It feels a bit more like the city of gold – without going too far. Now you can sit on the veranda, with a view of the pool, order sushi from the wonderful sushi bar, and gaze out at the lawns and the trees. You are cut off from the hustle and bustle of Sandton, just metres away. It really is a haven, a tranquil place in the middle of urban sprawl.”