Taking the culinary road less travelled saw Henrico Sampson (40) transition from apprentice teppanyaki chef to opening his own sushi takeout business in the garage of his home in Paarl in the Western Cape.
Like so many others, the Covid-19 pandemic also forced Sampson to utilise the full force of his creativity to survive the economic effects of the protracted lockdown.
Armed with 20 years of experience in the restaurant business, he gave birth to Sushi H, a new business. And he certainly has the tongues wagging.
“Everything was closed,” he tells Food For Mzansi. “I had to think about what I could do. How do I put food on the table? I could not work for restaurants anymore, I could not travel. What do I do now?”
What he did was to build himself a sushi bar with reeds he found at a nearby river. And soon people came from all over the Boland to collect their sushi, grilled prawns, and grilled fish from his garage.
“Passion is very important in life. It does not matter what you do, you need to have love and passion for your calling.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Sampson credits his mother, Maureen Arendse, as the inspiration behind his cooking interests.
Growing up in the Klein Nederburg neighbourhood of Paarl, Sampson could never imagine that he would one day make a living from all things food.
His mother, an avid cook, would often earn an extra income catering for celebratory events in the area.
“My mother loves cooking, I learned everything from my mother when she catered for functions like weddings and parties.
“I remember I would watch her get up early on weekends. She used to cater with her three sisters and go to people’s houses to make a big potjie and bake so many cakes on weekends to make extra money to put food on the table.”
Meals made by his mother always score five stars, he adds.
“You know when there is nothing (left) in the house and there are only two or three ingredients, what do you do? You must make it nice for yourself.
“We used to love the chicken nekkies (necks) my mother cooked. I used to ask myself why they were so delicious. She did not have a lot of spices in her kitchen cabinet. She would fry the onions, add the nekkies and make her own sauce. I believe her secret ingredient was love,” he says.
“Life is about positive energy. what you put out into the universe you receive.”
Like mother, like son
To make his own way after he matriculated from New Orleans Secondary School in 1998, Sampson started working as a part-time waiter while studying administration at the New Horizons Computer Centre in Cape Town.
“You had to go out and earn your keep. I would travel and work weekends just to bring in my share, just to survive.”
Sampson worked for Spur steak ranches until 2000. A five-year hiatus then saw him study restaurant management before returning to the “front of the house”. This time, as manager of the Picatta restaurant in Franschhoek, also in the Cape Winelands.
In 2012, he went on to apprentice under a master of Japanese cuisine, Kiyomasu Deon Sensei, at the Okamai restaurant on the GlenWood boutique winery in Paarl.
“The way he made food was next level. I have seen many dishes since 1998, but what he made was beautiful. I’d watch him as he deep fried tempura prawns. I would watch how he sliced tuna or beef with so much care and precision, then grill it in his secret sauce.
“It was amazing the way he even plated, I would look at him and think to myself, ‘I want to be like this guy.’”
In his pursuit to become a sushi master himself, he moved to Qatar in the Middle East. This is where he became an itamae (sushi chef) at Ocean Basket, the South African seafood restaurant with wings across the globe.
“I never imagined I would make a career from food,” he says.
Bright future plans
Today, he is on track to opening the doors of his very own sushi restaurant; to move his business from his home garage.
“Covid-19 was very tough on everyone. Restaurants closed down and only take-aways and pick-ups were allowed. I started to advertise. People pre-ordered and I used that money to buy the stock and some of the equipment.
“I had to make it work and launched the business from the garage. I am currently still working from home, but from 1 May I am going to move into a building,” he says proudly.
There is no recipe to guaranee success in the culinary industry, Sampson believes.
“It is not your environment or where you come from that determines your success or your failure. When you have a dream, you are unstoppable. Dream big. Dream and find your passion.”
Despite the ups and downs of life, Sampson remains committed to his dream.
“Passion is very important in life. It does not matter what you do. You need to have love and passion for your calling. Everyone will always tell you to work hard. Yes, you do, but it is organic when you have passion.
“Life is about positive energy. What you put out into the universe (is what) you (will) receive.”