Blackanese like me

2012-12-16 10:00

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If Vusi Kunene wasn’t a restauranteur, he could be a toothpaste model.

Sitting below some crafty Japanese-bowl light fittings and framed by a chopstick-decorated wall, he talks fast and earnestly, punctuated by flashes of pearly whites.

He has every reason to smile. His sushi restaurant, The Blackanese, has been open for five months and is attracting considerable attention.

The 28-year-old from rural Mpumalanga fell in love with sushi before he even tasted it.

“Because of the art of it, and the freshness and the culture,” he enthuses. “One time I almost got fired ’cause I couldn’t stop looking over the bar and staring at the Japanese guys making it.”

At the time, he was a waiter at a top Cape Town restaurant, but staff weren’t allowed to sample the merchandise.

“I got deep into the culture – reading up about sushi online. When I moved to another restaurant, they let us eat it.”

It came as a horrible shock.

“They made a lovely platter and the lady says to me, ‘This is wasabi. It’s Japanese avocado. It’s very nice’. I put a big chunk in my mouth. Yoh!”

Wasabi is a hot and spicy green paste made from the root of a Japanese plant. A very small amount is eaten with sushi.

“That’s a very mean thing to do,” I say.

“I’ve done it a couple of times myself!” he exclaims, grinning. “Apart from the usual clients, there are a lot of guys around here doing construction. They come in off the street asking what is this and that and that. That’s Japanese avo, I say. It’s very nice?.?.?.”

The Blackanese is situated in the ruthlessly hip Maboneng Precinct, where developer Jonathan Liebmann has acquired more than a dozen new blocks to transform into apartments – hence the workers.

“They love the bean curd dishes. They don’t eat the wasabi. Obviously I know why black guys don’t want to eat sushi, ’cause they think it’s just raw fish. That’s why we also do amazing deep-fried sushi as a speciality.

“Handrolls are popular because of their size. We use a lot of mayonnaise and avo, and try to create sushi for an African palate.”

Trendy white folk aside, Kunene says 35% of his clientele are black professionals.

“At this point, they’ve got the money. They’re exposed to the lovelier things in life. It’s about a willingness to experience amazing new things.”

The word ‘amazing’ is slipped into almost every sentence. It aptly describes how he ended up being the true sushi king of Joburg – though fate would have it he shares a name with that other Kunene who eats the stuff off models’ bodies.

“I grew up eating pap and morogo – and chicken if we were lucky,” says Kunene of his childhood in Turffontein village near KwaMhlanga, Mpumalanga, where he was raised by his grandmother from the age of two.

“My gran would farm vegetables, and I’d see my mum every now and then. She’d come to collect vegetables to sell on the trains in Joburg to cover essentials and school fees.”

His mother died when he was 14. He left school and took a bus to Pretoria, where he’d heard his father lived. He stutters slightly at the difficult memory of trying to find him in Mamelodi and giving up, and later moving to Joburg, always looking for the next opportunity.

“I learn very easily. If I’m with the ‘coconuts’, I can be a ‘coconut’. If I’m with the township boys, I can be a township boy.”

After stints as a car and security guard, he landed a job in a restaurant at Johannesburg International Airport’s international departures.

Kunene found his groove. He worked his way up through coffee shops and into fine-dining restaurants. He learnt people skills, the art of networking and discovered different cultures. He honed his business mind.

“That table is my business plan. The goal is to get 20% as a tip. What am I going to do to get it? How good can my service be? I love it. I love serving people.”

Relationships with clients shaped his destiny. He unknowingly served owners of award-winning restaurants and was offered better jobs.

In Cape Town, he thought of starting a mobile sushi business.

“People told me I was mad. Sometimes I thought I was mad myself.”

He and his friend Themba Khumalo began catering at food markets, where one customer’s husband was a bigwig at Harley-Davidson. The two of them landed their first catering gig at a VIP event in Margate.

“One guy came up and complimented us on the amazing sushi. He asked, ‘Which part of Japan are you guys from?’ I said, ‘No, we’re not Japanese, we’re Blackanese’. I love the name ’cause it always makes people smile.”

He had a name but not a restaurant, until one of his clients at Maboneng’s food market turned out to be the developer’s girlfriend. Liebmann was ordering extra salmon roses when they began chatting.

Today, chef Sandile Ntombela prepares our lunch, helped by chef Khumalo. Chef Kunene is in a rush to teach a sushi-making class at the Johannesburg Culinary and Pastry School.

He and his chefs are planning to start prawn braais on the street, and oyster and champagne evenings. They intend to become caterers of choice at leading venues. For sushi inspiration, they visit top Japanese restaurants.

When the food arrives, it’s clear that Kunene’s methods aren’t just madness. There is beautiful teardrop maki and sushi with a hairstyle – a strip of seaweed on just one side. There are towers of salmon topped with dollops of mayonnaise, and sprinkled with black and white sesame. The famous wasabi is sculpted to form a leaf and the bean curd boats are piled high.

“You don’t need chopsticks,” says Kunene when I start to negotiate it. “Use your hands. This is Africa.”

His father, whom he at last tracked down in Mamelodi 11 years ago, is fetching his gran and coming to The Blackanese for the first time “soon”.

Of their first meeting, he says: “I go up to him. He looks at me and he blinks. He’s, like, ‘You look like me, like my family’ and this other guy says, ‘He is. He’s your son’.”

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