I recently attended a press screening of a documentary for my second internship, World California.
(Photo credit to Magnolia Pictures)
It’s a feature film called Jiro Dreams of Sushi by director David Gelb that will be released in select theaters in the United States about “the world’s greatest sushi chef,” Jiro Ono.
The film isn’t just about sushi though. It’s really about a perfectionist chef who has elevated the craft of sushi making into an elegant, respectable art form.
Jiro has been working in his sushi restaurant, called Sukiyabashi Jiro, for decades. The 10-seat narrow enclave is bunked inconspicuously at a Tokyo subway station, but it boasts three Michelin stars—the highest form of praise any chef can get in his culinary career. So esteemed is Jiro’s sushi house that it takes months prior of reservation to snag a spot, and it costs at least USD$370 for a single meal in his restaurant.
(Photo credit to Magnolia Pictures)
Director Gelb’s cinematography flows like an orchestra stage, with ebbs and flows of both somber and light moments inserted between lustrous takes of glistening tuna, wiggling octopus and slap-roasted nori. Even though the human drama within this film is subtle, you get a glimpse of both the successes and failures of a man who just won’t give up his never-ending strife for perfection.
Jiro is obsessed with sushi. He loves it so much, sushi appears in “grand visions” in his dreams. I somehow imagined a row of sexy sushi dancing the Flamenco in his dreams, although I’m sure the actual dream was more refined.
Anyway. As I was saying, Jiro is so serious about sushi that he refuses to sell anything else in his restaurant. While many other restaurants have bended to popular wishes and added other dishes like tempura, soba and fusion rolls to the menu, Jiro will only make sushi.
And not just any kind of sushi. He buys his fish fresh from the fish market every morning from his accustomed fish specialist. He even has his own rice expert, who reserves a special brand of rice just for Jiro. His menu changes daily according to what is fresh and seasonal.
(Magnolia Pictures: tuna specialists from the fish market that Jiro frequents)
For decade after decade, Jiro has been consistently making excellent sushi, but to him, excellence isn’t enough. There’s always more improvement to be made, and you can see it in the deep, meditative expression in his face as he twirls his fingers around a mound of rice, or solemnly brush a savory glaze over a purple-pink slice of raw tuna. He’s always thinking: how can I make better sushi?
“I try to reach the top,” Jiro said in the film. “But who knows where the top is?”
The guy has been in the culinary industry ever since he had been abandoned by his parents at age 9. Can you imagine a 9-year-old working in a kitchen, having to fend and provide for himself?
“I had to work to survive,” Jiro said. And he has been bringing that kind of fierce survival instinct to his work ethic ever since. He is 85 years old now, and still working the kitchen from day till night. He doesn’t take breaks; in fact, he detest holidays because he thinks it’s “too long.”
It’s not easy working under Jiro; apprentices need about 10 years of training before they are even titled shokunin— “artisan” or “craftsman” in Japanese. It’s less easy to be Jiro’s sons.
Both Jiro’s sons are also sushi chefs. The eldest is still working under Jiro; he’s been working for his father for 50 years since he turned 19, even though he wanted to be in the race car business. But it’s the Japanese tradition for the eldest son to take over his father’s business, so here he is daily in the kitchen, slicing fish and directing other apprentices.
The younger son owns a separate sushi restaurant because he knew he would otherwise be forever working under someone. And although he produces spectacular sushi, many still consider it subpar to his father’s.
Such is the influence of Jiro. For his sons to preserve his legacy, they need to perform twice as good and hard as Jiro. In one scene, a former Jiro apprentice mentions that when a great sushi chef retires or passes away, his sushi restaurant will usually shut down because people keep comparing his cooking to his son’s.
I had chills watching this, because I could identify with Jiro’s sons. It also made me wonder if it’s all worth it. Although Jiro’s dedication to his craft is admirable and humbling, he also gave up quite a lot for it. His sons didn’t see much of him growing up, and Jiro’s stardom definitely produces a heavy pressure on them.
It also made me ponder: At what point is this constant struggle for perfection enough? Should a creator of any kind of work—be it an artist, a writer or a craftsman—ever be satisfied with his or her work?
And of course, the show made me freaking hungry. I didn’t want to eat anything else except for sushi. I had some crappy Korean sushi (kimbap) the next day and it did nothing to abate my hankering craving for Japanese sushi.
Last night, my craving finally sedated a tiny bit. Joanna and I went for dinner at Izakaya Fu-ga, a fusion Japanese bar in Little Tokyo.
We’ve been to this place before, but had loved it so much it’s kind of our go-to place for Japanese cuisine now. Not only is the food good, it’s cheap for its quality, and the service is wonderful.
I don’t think Jiro will approve though; the sushi here are all bastardized to fusion innovations, and the menu isn’t entirely sushi-focused.
Take this Japanese pork rib tacos, for example.
We got this because it was mad cheap at Happy Hour price. It was super good, too.
I couldn’t really taste the “Japanese” in this taco. The pork seemed like typical pulled pork—chock-full of umami juices and tender meats, dimpled under a generous ladle of fresh tomatoes and lettuce.
Or take this sauteed assorted wild mushroom dish:
Shitake, enoki and brown mushrooms sauteed in a light cream sauce, served with mini baguette toasts.
SO GOOD!!! You spread the mushrooms on top of the toast, or dip the toast into the leftover cream that has been infused with aromas of Asian mushrooms. I can probably easily make this at home, but meh, too lazy.
We also had another non-sushi dish that was stellar: Creamy Dashi Brown Rice Cheese Risotto.
The maitre’D surprised us by wheeling a big, fat round of Parmesan cheese. He dumped the hot risotto into the mound, and just kind of shaved the insides of the cheese into the risotto. Fabulous.
He then divided the risotto up into two equal portions.
The risotto wasn’t as soupy as the other risottos I’ve tried, probably because I asked for “a heck lot of” cheese. It was more goopy, with that al dente chew of brown rice. You could taste a hint of dried anchovies from the dashi broth.
This dish was fantastic. Just look at that strand of Parmesan cheese. Drool.
Of course, we also had some sushi. We ended up just ordering from the Happy Hour menu, which had a sad selection of sushi. We ordered the only two sushi in there.
Second was the popular California roll:
I usually never order California roll. But it was like $3!! Of course we had to order it.
I thought the portion for the avocado was rather stingy, but hey, that just means more crab so I guess I can’t complain too much.
Although this was a great dinner, my sushi craving is still pulsating. I don’t think it’ll die out soon.
Just watch the film when it comes out. You’ll see what I mean. Here’s the list of theaters showing Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
And for those who can’t find a theater near you, here’s the trailer:
Question of the Day: What do you think? Is Jiro’s passion to be admired, or do you think such dedication comes with a big price?