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Monday, October 1, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

Recently Matthew sent me a link to a new DVD out since March of 2012 entitled: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi.

Because it's Matthew I gave the link a look-see, found it intriguing and then got my hands on the movie.

It's a documentary about Ono Jiro (surname first), a sushi master who lives and works in Tokyo who happens to be the considered the greatest sushi chef (itamae) in the world. That's him in the center of the photo above.

As the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant located within a Tokyo subway station, Ono's place is the first sushi joint to be awarded a three-star rating by the Michelin Guide.

Ten seats? You know it's going to be expensive... plus the fact that you have to book months in advance...
Sukiyabashi Jiro
Ono is 85-years-old, and while the Michelin Guide considers his restaurant to be the best of the best, like any restaurant in Japan, success is measured by word of mouth of the customers.

Japan, for all of its love of ranking things as the top three such and such (waterfalls, castles, et cetera) does not actually ranks its restaurants or chefs... no matter what you might have thought after watching the Japanese Iron Chef television show (Ryouri no Tetsujin) which has helped elevate the image of chefs in the public eye.

The documentary created by David Gelb, however, is a wonderful tribute to Ono... taking us into the life of him... allowing us a glimpse into how sushi is made.

Sushi making is, if you listen to chefs, an art form. I have heard that some sushi chefs-in-training do not even get to touch a sushi knife for years, until the protege feels they are ready.

Best ever or best right now, or simply the star of a documentary, Ono is passionate about making sushi, telling the viewer that he often dreams about sushi... dreams about new ways to create perfection that he readily admits will never be achieved. It means, that there is always room for improvement.
Jiro Ono spreading his special soy sauce on sushi.
Ono has two sons, the oldest is Yoshikazu, who works alongside his father, and the younger, Takashi, who works in a nearby place of his own in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. Both have the utmost respect for the old man, and while Yoshikazu still learns under his father, it seems that Jiro keeps his eye on Takashi.

I say seems... that's because I watched a non-subtitled version of the documentary, and had to rely on my own crappy Japanese language skills, which were lacking when I left Japan in 1993 to now where they are vastly out of practice.  As such, I am sure I missed the nuances of the documentary... but just know that the DVD available does have the English sub-titles.

One of the most intriguing things I saw in the documentary, was that Ono was always watching how his staff prepared and cut the sushi ingredients and sampling them all for taste and texture. I was bemused to see him carefully study the technique of Yoshikazu as he prepared a piece of sushi... tasting it before agreeing that he had promise.

What was interesting is that his son must have done the same thing every day for years and years, and still his father, Jiro, needs to make sure it is done to his satisfaction. 

His son must have been close to 60-years-of-age.

What I got from that, was that being a sushi chef is a life-time commitment... something all in the Ono clan accept as their lot in life... not that I am implying there is anything wrong with being a sushi chef or a chef of any kind.
Jiro's fingers seem to bend at impossible angles to form his near-perfect sushi.
I admire chefs. I watch maybe six hours of programming on the Food Network here in Canada... I admire chefs because I do not know how to cook, but I do have a taste for good food.

I eat sushi at least once per week. I do so not because I am pinning for Japan (I get that angst out by writing about it in these blogs), but rather because I enjoy the flavors and textures. Not the atmosphere, however, as I tend to eat in front of my desk at work while I write blogs at lunch, and write magazine articles the rest of the time.

So... I love sushi. Actually, except for sea urchin, I love all types of sushi. Eel, octopus (tako) and grilled egg (tamagoyaki) are my favorites, though aji (mackerel) and o-toro (fatty tuna) are up there as well.

And what pains me the most, living in Toronto, is that while the sushi I eat is good, it's not as good as the sushi I ate in Japan, and certainly not as good as the sushi I ate in some of Japan's top sushi restaurants. It makes me wonder just how good Jiro's sushi really is.

I watched him make the sushi in the documentary, and to my untrained eye, saw very little that was different - except that he added a special soy sauce atop each piece of sushi as it was placed by hand (not chopsticks) onto a place, and then picked up by hand (not chopsticks) by the customer who popped the whole thing into their mouth.

I have a large mouth (ask an fisherman who has hooked me while I swam in a river), but even so, when I pop a whole piece of sushi in my mouth, it's a chore to chew and swallow... so how are these smaller Japanese people doing it? Apparently with aplomb.

The documentary looks at Jiro's restaurant, talks about his past, looks at his sons and how they have taken up the art, and then examines how they acknowledge that great sushi is only as a great as it maker, and its ingredients.
Interior of Sukiyabashi Jiro
We were then taken on a trek to the massive Tōkyō-to Chūō Oroshiuri Shijō (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market  - 東京都中央卸売市場), also known as the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where we watch professional fish mongers examine freshly caught fish carcasses with flashlights, press the shell of a live large striped shrimp for suppleness, feel a live octopus for god-only-knows-what - damage, I suppose. I examine fruit at the grocery store the same way, tossing back ones that don't meet my expectations - and I teach my son the same thing when we go... it's touching to see him want to try different apples, and then smelling, touching and visually expecting each to make sure it is perfect.
Hands-on experience with a live-octopus.
That's what Jiro does as well... with his sons... with his ingredients... huh... I never thought about that until I wrote it down. The passing down of knowledge and experience to another generation... that's very cool...

I watched as Yoshikazu and Jiro went to different fish sellers to get the ingredients they wanted... tuna in one place, octopus in another, shrimp from someone else, fresh ginger from an outdoor market... I know that living in Toronto, without an abundance of those fish ingredients readily available at any of the sushi shops I frequent.  

Octopus don't care for sushi - as this one grabbed the arm of the seller trying to bag it.
The film shows staff sitting outside the restaurant on a small stool... in the hallway of the Tokyo subway station... early in the morning... burning coals under a grill, and then fanning strips of dried nori (seaweed) atop it it and on the grill to loosen up the nori sheets, making them easier to manipulate.

I watched a chef place dried grasses onto a burner on a stove to slightly char and impart sweet-smells into the skin of a fish (I'll assume a mackerel) that will soon be thinly sliced for its role in the sushi kabuki.

The documentary was fascinating to watch. It didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know about making great sushi. I am not completely uninformed, after all. However, it was nice to see this man at work.

One of my favorite things to pull from everyone I met in Japan was their life. While it was damn near impossible to understand their growing pains, I did take great pains to ask about their work. In Japan, a person's choice of work (and perhaps in other countries as well) tells me a great deal about the person.

You can sense their passion as they talk about work... work, which is a derogatory four-letter word in North America for most people. Hell... I write for a living, and actually enjoy what I do. My own father hated his job and was making six-figures back in the early 1970s... and he taught me to not just go after the money, but to find a job you like, because that makes your life just a little bit better.

I took him to task on that, and while I failed at finding an occupation I loved with a lot of money, I did find one without a lot of money. I've been in other occupations and made more - even 20 years ago - but I was always on edge back then. Not so much nowadays. It's why I can write all day at work, write at lunch time and write when I get home for hours. Heck, when I used to take the public transportation into work, I also wrote during my travel time... meanwhile, at work, I hear so many other writers/editors ay how they can't write at all once they leave work. For me... writing is my passion.
Jiro Ono
 I'm no Ono Jiro, but I understand his passion for his profession... it's a dream job.

And perhaps that's why I can recommend the Jiro Dreams Of Sushi documentary. He may or may not be the world's greatest sushi chef, but you can see his passion in this play. Next time I'll try and get my hands on a copy with English sub-titles. Available at fine DVD shops everywhere. 

Andrew Joseph


  1. I watched this at the Fox theatre this summer and just loved it...thought of you while watching, 'natch.

    - c

  2. nah, you were the eggman


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