Jiro Ono is Tokyo’s most famous sushi chef. At 86, he is also the world’s oldest chef to be honoured with Michelin’s coveted three-star rating—quite a feat considering that his restaurant seats just 10 diners at a bar and serves nothing but sushi. No sashimi platters. No bento boxes. No California rolls. Just divine morsels of fish on rice, presented one at a time to customers who have waited up to a year for a reservation. Each piece of sushi must be eaten the moment it lands in front of you. A typical $400 meal, consisting of 20 pieces, can be over in less than half an hour.
Fish and rice. You have to wonder, how hard can that be? But Ono has spent seven decades working day and night to perfect his art, and even now he insists there is always room for improvement. Take the octopus. Not so long ago, Ono discovered that, for optimal tenderness and taste, one must massage the octopus for 50 minutes, not 30 minutes. During its spa treatment, of course, the creature is dead, but hours earlier, as a fishmonger struggled to coax it into a clear plastic bag, it was very much alive.
That’s a scene from a remarkable new documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a reverent portrait of the octogenarian chef by Los Angeles filmmaker David Gelb, who, at 28, is as green at his craft as Ono is experienced in his. The film belongs to a growing subgenre of documentaries about ultra-serious chefs who take perfectionism to absurd extremes. Last year saw two of them. A Matter of Taste showed New York wunderkind Paul Leibrandt pushing back the frontiers of the palate with such dishes as “espuma of calf brains and foie gras” and “eel, violets and chocolate.” And El Bulli explored the laboratory cuisine of Spain’s temperamental Ferran Adrià, who concocts edible experiments in avant-garde art; his proudest creation was a cocktail consisting of just water, oil and salt.
But unlike these mad scientists of the kitchen, Jiro exudes a Zen-like calm, pursuing simplicity and purity with a monastic work ethic grounded in strict routine. It begins with a tactile search for the ultimate ingredients—from palpating the flesh of a tuna on an auction floor to fondling a live shrimp. The merchants are Ono’s dedicated acolytes. Even his rice dealer refuses to sell to a hotel chef who won’t cook it perfectly. And cooking rice, it seems, is the steepest challenge of all. “The rice has taken Jiro years and years to master,” says Gelb, on the phone from New York. “Sushi is so misunderstood. It’s not just fish and rice. The balance between them is the most important thing. ”
Ono left home as a boy to learn his craft and never looked back. “Nowadays parents say to their children they can return if it doesn’t work out,” he says in the film. “Children of parents who say stupid things like this are doomed to failure.” Ono’s discipline is rooted in daily repetition of simple tasks, from toasting seaweed by fanning it over a hibachi to moulding a piece of sushi “as if you’re pressing a baby chick.” He hates vacations, and takes time off only for funerals.
The master passes on his skills to trainees who undergo a 10-year apprenticeship. (Only at the end of that period are they allowed to bake the egg dish that ends the meal.) The chef’s two boys were both apprentices, but the younger son eventually left to start his own restaurant because the eldest, Yoshikazu, will inherit the restaurant. It has been a long wait. Yoshikazu, now 50, still works with his father and has taken over some of his duties. But sushi’s reigning patriarch is in no hurry to retire.
With a 58-year age difference between director and subject, Gelb himself became a kind of apprentice. Over the course of two years, he spent eight weeks at the master’s side. And the chef’s work ethic seems to have rubbed off on the filmmaking, which unfolds with a handmade delicacy. Gelb, who directed, produced and shot the documentary, says Jiro’s philosophy applies to everything. “The editing process was no easy task—we had 100 hours of footage in a foreign language.” As Gelb and his editor endlessly recut the material, he says, “We would always ask: ‘What would Jiro do?’ He would do whatever it would take to get it done.”