The first time Junior Nkosi ate raw fish four years ago, he thought he was going to die. He ran to the bathroom, retching.
This is not a good thing for a sushi chef. But Junior Nkosi is no ordinary sushi chef. He is a Zulu, a member of perhaps Africa's most storied warrior tribe, known for fearlessness and ferocity in battle. Zulus do not, however, eat fish.
"We think fish is unclean and not fit to eat," Nkosi said. "Cows are almost God-like in our culture, but fish we find revolting."
But jobs being what they are in South Africa--scarce, that is--Nkosi thought it best to try to overcome his aversion to fish and stay put at the seafood restaurant that hired him when no one else would. He braved the smell and the taste and learned from his Japanese mentor the art of preparing sushi.
And somewhere along the way, he learned to like it, developing an almost spiritual relationship with raw fish. He came to understand that to make good sushi, you must "know" your knife and that to determine if the snapper is really fresh you must gaze "deep into its eyes."
"The beauty of a finished plate began to appeal to me," he said. "It was not something I had ever considered before. But sushi is not my career any more--it is my life. If I don't have sushi one day, I feel empty inside."
Nkosi, 25, is believed to be the world's first Zulu sushi chef. No one knows for sure, of course, because there are no statistics for this kind of thing, but he is clearly South Africa's most celebrated sushi chef. Virtually every sushi bar in Johannesburg has offered him a job. He appears on television cooking shows and draws faithful customers by the hundreds, his boss at the Under the Sea restaurant said.
"There are a lot of sushi bars in Johannesburg nowadays," said Sherry Havenga, who orders Nkosi's sushi at least once a week, on average. "But Junior is by far the best. I won't eat anyone else's sushi but his."
If a Zulu sushi chef seems like a character in some comedy skit, Nkosi is proof at the same time of the profound changes that have swept South Africa in the past five years. For nearly a half-century, white minority rulers put a lid on what was possible for the country's 31 million blacks. With the end of apartheid in 1994, the lid was removed, and Nkosi is now the living proof that anything is possible in this transformed nation.
"I tell kids all the time that nothing suggests I should be doing what I'm doing," Nkosi said. "Yet, here I am."
Still, it's been no cakewalk. Some Japanese customers were offended to discover an African preparing sushi. "They would see me at the bar and say: 'Where's the sushi chef?' I would say: 'You're looking at him.' Some of them would walk out. The father of [my mentor] refused to speak to him for a whole year when he discovered that he was teaching sushi preparation to an African."
Nkosi dropped out of college seven years ago when his father lost his job and could no longer afford to send him to school. He looked for work but could not land a job and moved in with his older brother, Trevor, in Soweto, the teeming black township outside Johannesburg.
Discouraged, he stopped looking for work altogether. This did not sit well with his brother, who worked at a fish emporium, selling seafood to Johannesburg restaurants. One day, Trevor came home and said he had a friend who was looking for someone to train for work. The friend, Trevor told his brother, was Japanese. The conversation that followed went like this:
Nkosi: "Japanese? Ah, karate?" he said excitedly.
Trevor: "No. Seafood."
Trevor: "Raw fish."
Nkosi: "Raw fish?"
The laughter that followed lasted for what seemed like 10 minutes, Nkosi recalled. He had never heard of sushi, had never eaten cooked fish, let alone raw fish. But his brother insisted that he take the job or get out of his home. Reluctantly, Nkosi reported for work.
At first, the training did not go well. Alone at the restaurant for the first time, he filled a takeout order. The customer returned the next day, complaining that the sushi had poisoned his family, leaving everyone sick to their stomachs.
"You see, I was preparing the sushi, but I had never tasted it," Nkosi said. "My boss wasn't there, so I'm thinking I don't really have to test to see if the fish was fresh. You can't really fix sushi unless you appreciate what good sushi should taste like."
Given a reprieve by his boss, Nkosi immersed himself in sushi, slowly at first. He took his first bite, then another, and "somewhere along the way I actually began to like the taste of it."
He is fussy now. He locks his knives up every day when he leaves work. "You go home, and someone might use your knife to cut lemons," he said, grimacing at the thought.
Hotels and restaurants are constantly offering him jobs. "We're making sure we look after him," said Nita Brescia, Nkosi's boss at Under The Sea. "He's too valuable to lose."