Lauded as the best sushi chef on the planet, Jiro Ono (left) defines the secrets of success in David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. (Magnolia Pictures)
One reason it’s so hard to get a table at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the unprepossessing sushi restaurant wedged beneath an office building just next to a Tokyo subway station, is that the place doesn’t actually have any tables. It’s just one narrow counter and 10 seats. Another reason is a three-star rating from the Michelin Guide, which means it’s officially worth traveling to Japan from wherever you are just to eat there.
Cleverly, filmmaker David Gelb got in by making a documentary about the proprietor. Jiro Ono is widely reported to be the world’s best sushi chef, and as Jiro Dreams of Sushi reveals, he sets an elegant if also daunting example of devotion to his work. The title of Gelb’s reverie does not exaggerate. “I would jump out of bed at night with ideas,” recalls the 85-year-old master, whose lifelong meditation on those ideas is the substance of this film.
The first question: “What defines deliciousness?” Gelb proceeds to elegantly establish the necessary conditions for devising an answer. Between glistening fish flesh close-ups come glimpses of family history, supplier subcultures, and other useful bits of context, but the prevailing aesthetic is a sort of artful, slow-motion austerity. If Gelb’s reverential gestures become repetitive, it’s at least partly to establish character essentials. We learn early on that Jiro gets on the subway from the same place on the same platform every day; it becomes clear, and crucial, that the restaurant’s asceticism extends directly from the man himself.
The glory of Jiro Dreams of Sushi is that it doesn’t just make you want to eat. It makes you want to be great at making something. To be a shokunin, a sort of socially responsible and spiritually resolute artisan, requires patience and pride. Other trade secrets include 45-minute octopus massage, avoidance of appetizers, and carefully pressurized body temperature rice. (It should be common knowledge, meanwhile, that umami is a harmony of flavors, and a feeling that makes you say “ahh.”)
Also, his staff’s apprenticeship is long and strenuous. One subordinate reports needing more than 200 tries to grill an egg custard that meets Jiro’s standards. His older son, still an apprentice at age 50, works by Jiro’s side and is evidently in his shadow. Across town his younger son runs another sushi restaurant, known for a more relaxed atmosphere by customers who tend to get nervous eating in front of Jiro. It’s true: He hovers. Even one eloquently effusive food writer admits to getting nervous with every visit. What’s more, the son who left was informed by his father upon departure that he’d have no home to return to. Eschewing failure is how Jiro encourages success.
This is the consequence of pleasure taken seriously. And it is the shape of a legacy. By now his reputation has been earned; it seems likely that sushi dreams of Jiro.