The ancient art of Nyotaimori has been brought into disrepute by the antics at the pre-launch of flamboyant businessman Kenny Kunene's Cape Town branch of ZAR nightclub, an authority in the South African sushi trade has claimed.
The source preferred to remain unnamed because he did not want his company associated with the "disgusting bastardisation" of the ancient Japanese art form — which traditionally involves female models lying motionless while sushi is served from their naked bodies.
In the case of the ZAR body sushi, however, models were not naked, but were scantily clad in bikinis.
'Sushi is not placed directly onto skin'
"On certain occasions, we have adopted and westernised this practice on request... for corporate functions. For instance, the sushi is not placed directly onto the skin of the model, but is presented on grape or banana leaves to avoid contact with the skin.
"For the models, this is real work involving skill, so obviously they earn more than waiters do. Per hour, our models earn between R250 and R300. Generally the models will work for three hours per night, although sometimes they may work for a maximum of five hours. These are human beings, not machines."
While male (Nantaimori) and female (Nyotaimori) nude sushi models are paid equally, the source revealed that female models were in greater demand.
Corporate functions prefer females
"This is because most of the parties that call for this sort of thing are corporate functions, and traditionally that is a more male-dominated arena."
The preparation for a career in sushi modelling is no picnic. According to the source, training commences with the model lying motionless on a table in a swimsuit for one hour. This period is gradually increased.
"Then we will put on the air conditioner to test the model's ability to endure cold. Then we start putting pieces of food onto him/her to see if they can handle the strain. We have to be sure the models are up to it before they are presented at a function."
'All kinds and creeds' request body sushi
The source said that "all kinds and creeds", from serious aficionados to those looking for a decadently different theme for a product launch or wedding reception, requested body sushi.
Asked to comment on the Nyotaimori at ZAR's Cape Town pre-launch, based on photographs in the media, the source said: "Health and Safety would have a fit if I did that at my functions. Food cannot be served directly on the naked skin of the model. It was all pomp and show.
"Also, there is no respect shown for the model (in photos of the ZAR function). If someone touched my models, or made lewd comments to them, that's it — they will just stand up and walk away. Customers are not allowed to speak to the models at all and they can only pick up the food with chopsticks."
Strict hygiene is enforced
To deal with possible health and safety issues incurred in the practice, the source said that strict hygiene is enforced.
"The models have to shave their entire body. Then, they must wash thoroughly with scent-free soap and use a fragrance-free deodorant, such as Michum, because any perfume will affect the delicate flavour of the sushi."
The serving of sushi off the bodies of scantily clad models at the pre-launch of Kunene's club appears to fall into a grey area, in terms of the city's health regulations.
ZAR in grey area in terms of the city's health regulations
Section nine, subsections one and two (c) of Government Notice No. R918, state:
"(1) No person shall be allowed to handle food without wearing suitable protective clothing as specified in sub-regulation 2.
"(2) The protective clothing, including head covering and footwear, of any person handling food that is not packed so that the food cannot be contaminated shall... be so designed that the food cannot come into direct contact with any part of the body, excluding the hands."
At the launch of ZAR Cape Town, however, sushi appeared to be served directly off the model's skin at times.
Dr Ivan Bromfield, executive director of City Health Cape Town, confirmed that regulation R918 was still in use, but said: "Regulation R918 does not prohibit 'novel' or 'unique' ways of serving foodstuffs. However, the principle of clean surfaces applies in all instances."
Asked whether City Health is engaged in any investigation into the ZAR body sushi incident in light of the regulation R918, Bromfield responded: "City Health has not received any complaints about this particular case nor are we aware that it is a practice in any other establishments."
Department 'unable to form opinion'
He concluded that for this reason, the department was "unable to form an opinion on the suitability of this manner of serving sushi or any other foodstuff".
This is in contrast to statements issued by the ANC Youth League and the ANC Woman's League in the wake of the ZAR body sushi incident. On 31 January the ANCYL said in a press release: "We... do not agree with serving of any kind of food on human bodies and have expressed this sentiment publicly in the past".
While the ANCWL on 1 February called body sushi a "despicable practice", saying: "We are appalled by this derogatory act of serving sushi on bodies of half naked women."
Free publicity for ZAR
ZAR general manager Wayne Buckley says: "The sushi thing exploded into a media storm, obviously vastly overinflated. The good part is, everyone knows about ZAR."
On the weekend, ZAR hosted a party at Two Oceans Aquarium.
In what appears to be an attempt to feed off the media hype in the wake of the club's pre-launch Buckley said: "We released a tongue-in-cheek statement that Kenny [Kunene] was throwing a bash there so we could apologise to all the fish for all the sushi we ate."
The media did not take the bait, however, "because this would obviously make light of the whole [sushi] story, and how dare one forget that whether or not Kenny eats some sushi is a matter of national, now international, importance," Buckley said.
Responding to a question relating to the R918 Health Regulations cited above, Buckley said: "We found it curious that when we did it the first time the sushi was served off leaves on the body as it is supposed to be. Despite this, everyone seemed to think we served it off the models' skin and gave dire health risk advice.
"So the second time around we discarded the leaves and the casualties were zero."
He added that the bar next to ZAR's Cape Town premises used to have a regular Monday night body sushi evening, but "no one ever commented on that".
'Disgusting bastardisation' of Japanese culture
Buckley was not perturbed by the local expert's claim that ZAR's rendition of body sushi was "a disgusting bastardisation" of the Japanese cultural practice.
"The debate was never around whether we served the Nyotaimori or Nantaimori properly. It was about whether it should be done at all," Buckley said.
"As of now, we are a bit too busy with running our new club to also have to shoulder the burden of defending an entire country's right to an ancient cultural practice."
Despite this, it appears that ZAR has lost its taste for Nyotaimori.
"We are done with the whole sushi thing," Buckley said