The sushi master’s obsession

Usually, fine dining doesn’t get me that excited (I do love food but prefer the fare prepared by short order cooks) but I think I can make an exception for sushi. I love the artistic minimalism of Japanese food and I do think I can tell the difference between run of the mill sushi and sashimi and that which is lovingly prepared by a craftsman such as the one profiled here. Just reading this set my tastebuds tingling:

One of the hardest reservations to get in the world is a seat at Jiro Ono’s sushi counter, a three-Michelin-star restaurant adjoining the entrance to the Ginza metro station, in the basement of a business building in Tokyo. A meal there, which consists of twenty pieces of sushi served one at a time, costs thirty thousand Japanese yen (about three hundred and seventy dollars), and lasts about fifteen or twenty minutes. (By contrast, a meal at Noma, probably the toughest get on the list, takes a good three to four hours). There are only ten seats, there is a set menu (no appetizers or modifications), and there are definitely no California rolls.

The question of what makes this hole in the wall so worthy is the subject of a gorgeously shot documentary opening today called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed by David Gelb. Jiro Ono was born in 1925, left home at the age of nine, and has been making sushi ever since. Though Japan has declared him a national treasure, he still says, at the age of eighty-five, “All I want to do is make better sushi.” He goes to work every day by getting on the train from the same position, he always tastes his food as he makes it, and he dislikes holidays. Jiro is described as a shokunin—a person who embodies the artisan spirit of the relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft.

Another Japanese term that came to my mind while I watched the film was kaizen, meaning “improvement” or “change for the better.” The concept is one of process, and it is often applied in business settings, like manufacturing and logistics, to ensure constant and never-ending improvement. Before cooking his octopus, Jiro used to massage it for up to thirty minutes. Now he will massage it for forty minutes, to give it an even softer texture and a better taste. Before a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro, guests are handed a hot towel, hand-squeezed by an apprentice. The apprentices, who train for at least ten years under Jiro, are not allowed to cut the fish until they practice just handling it. One of the older apprentices says Jiro taught him to “press the sushi as if it were a baby chick.”

The other thing I can really identify with in Japanese culture is this tendency towards obsessiveness…

A documentary movie has been made about this remarkable 86 year old workaholic craftsman called Jiro dreams of sushi.

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