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FOUR years ago Nandipha Mtandeki started working as a dishwasher in a local restaurant and her job prospects were far from promising.

But today she is delighting the taste buds of sushi aficionados in East London, serving up tasty morsels of rice and raw fish as a chef of the Japanese culinary art at Ocean Basket.

I never dreamt I would become a sushi chef, said the 28-year-old this week when the Daily Dispatch caught up with her at work.

The unusual career path came about after Mtandeki, who has a diploma in human resources, was unable to find work in her chosen field. She applied for a job at the restaurant in 2004 as a dishwasher after her brother, who was working there as well, told her about an opening.

Fondly known as Nandi, the greenhorn dishwasher was upgraded a year later to a fish filleter. In 2006 she started serving drinks behind the restaurants bar. Last year, she started training as a sushi chef under restaurant owner Demetri Anagnostakis.

The sushi chefs we had at the time all left, so my boss said I must learn to make sushi, said Mtandeki. At first it was difficult.

But the softly-spoken Mtandeki was a fast learner and within two weeks she was already preparing her first sushi.

I enjoy preparing sushi. I like all the different colours and textures of the food used, she said.

Mtandeki, who grew up in Peddie and currently lives in Mdantsanes NU1, said her family give her support. They are glad I have a job and can make money, she said.

Although they have yet to taste her mouth-watering creations, Mtandeki said photographs of her preparations were enough to get them excited.

Mtandeki works with precision, thinly slicing pieces of salmon to prepare a variety of sushi, from California rolls to salmon roses.

My boss said I could become a griller, but I told him No, the kitchen is too hot. I enjoy making sushi. Whenever the customers tell me they enjoyed their sushi, it makes it all worthwhile, said Mtandeki.

Front-of-house manager Sebastian Smith said Mtandeki was one of the most delightful people to work with.

She is very hard working and its always a pleasure to work with her. She�s lovely and the smile on her face brings the life out of the sushi, Smith said.

IN JAPANESE culture, becoming a sushi chef is a tremendous honour that requires years of training.

Trainees undergo a tough, strict apprenticeship. While a sushi chefs education in Japan may take between 10 and 15 years to complete, chef training in the West is quicker and often incorporates non-traditional ingredients. Traditional sushi chefs are not allowed to touch the fish for some years. They learn how to make the sticky rice every day before they are allowed to move onto the next level.

l Not all sushi contains raw fish, called sashimi. Vegetarian sushi uses ingredients like avocado, carrots and cucumbers.

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