284 10.10.2013 Sushi chef Sam Moima, poses for a photograph with a meal he prepared at Ocean Basket in Midrand. Picture: Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - He carefully packs his California sushi roll, occasionally dipping his long fingers into a bowl of water as he works. Finally he cuts it into perfect bite-sized pieces, places them neatly on a place with a leafy garnish and presents it to me. The sushi is compact and neat, and tastes as moreish as I expected.

It’s hard to believe that 31-year-old Sam Moima, a top sushi chef at Ocean Basket, was once a security guard, looking through the window of a restaurant and wishing he was part of the buzz. He is a testament to how drive and perseverance – with a dab of luck – can win you that elusive goal, even though the odds are stacked against you.

Recently Moima was part of a work team that went to Japan on a week-long sushi training trip, and had the privilege of receiving instruction from Pepi Anevski, winner of the World Sushi Cup 2013. “I learnt a lot. It has upped my game,” he smiles.

When you chat to Moima, it becomes clear why he succeeded. He speaks the language of dreamers, people who see the bigger picture. “Where you come from doesn’t determine your destiny, but you can’t get away from working hard. You have to strive,” he says earnestly.

Born and raised in Ellisras, Limpopo, Moima arrived in Joburg in 2001 to look for a job. “I had a matric but no other qualifications. I was willing to take any job available, so I became a security guard for two-and-a-half years, based in Sunninghill, Joburg, working day and night shifts. But I knew it wasn’t for me.”

Moima would sometimes go to the [email protected] in Centurion and when he heard the Ocean Basket restaurant there was hiring, he decided he’d try his chances at getting a waiter job. “I went to their headquarters and they hired me on the spot. It was my lucky day,” he says. That was 2005.

He waited tables for six months, but his mind was on the goings-on in the kitchen, in particular on the sushi chef who made “beautiful sushi”.

“I thought ‘Why can’t I make sushi?’. So I asked my boss if I could train. He tried me out and saw that I had the potential.”

For four months Moima would come to work before his shifts, and stay afterwards to train. And, sure enough, he quickly demonstrated exceptional skill and an eye for detail and, not least, a passion for sushi making.

“With sushi, you have to understand why you fold in a certain way. You have to understand what makes it beautiful,” he says.

The head sushi chef then went on a month’s leave, and all eyes were on Moima to prove he could deliver to expectations. “I did it. I proved I could do it,” he says. So when a new branch opened in Meyersdal in Alberton in 2006, Moima was posted there as the sole sushi chef and he moved from Tembisa, where he was renting, to Katlehong.

“That’s where I made my name. Customers started coming back just for ‘Sam’s sushi’. There were other Chinese and Japanese restaurants there, but they came to me. One customer gave me a present, an apron that said ‘Sam, No 1 sushi chef’. I loved it,” says Moima.

After three years, Moima was relocated to the branch in Centurion’s Blue Valley mall, so had to move back to Tembisa. There, he created house sushi specials like salmon roses and double California rolls with chopped crabsticks and prawns. “I had to think out of the box,” he says.

Soon, Moima was able to buy his first car, a second-hand Kia Picanto.

But last year his career hit a slow turn when he was relocated to Ocean Basket in Rissik street in the CBD. “I didn’t make much sushi there. It wasn’t a seller on the menu,” he says.

So he applied for a job at head office to train up-and-coming sushi chefs, and got the position. Aside from training, he monitors the chefs’ performance at Ocean Basket sushi bars.

His visit to the Japanese International Sushi School in Tokyo for a week in May is a highlight that he’ll remember as much for what he learnt about Japanese culture as for his lessons in sushi making. “I saw two, maybe three black people there. But I didn’t feel strange. I felt welcome. We could learn a lot from the Japanese in terms of respect and generosity. They share their knowledge easily, and you feel the love,” he smiles.

About sushi making, Moima was most impressed by the standard of hygiene in Japanese sushi restaurants. “It’s important, for instance, to constantly sharpen your knives, to smooth out any crevices where bacteria can grow. Fingers are dipped in bowls filled with half vinegar, half water, and you must dip your fingers after every piece of sushi is made,” he says. Moima visited a fish market, and was amazed by the freshness of the produce. “The fish are still alive, so you don’t smell fish, you just smell the sea.”

His passion for sushi was reinforced by the “love” that Japanese sushi chefs bring to their trade. “If you respect the produce you are handling, and spend time making it with passion and love, it influences the outcome. And the discerning customers can recognise this. That’s what I am teaching the new sushi chefs,” he says.

We get back to his bigger philosophy. Moima says his goal was to “make a good name for myself, so people would recommend me”. “Whatever you choose, your goal should be to be good at it and improve your life. Just keep improving your life,” he muses.

His own end goal? “I think I have what it takes to open my own sushi bar one day,” he smiles. - The Star