There’s something about sushi that’s almost religious for me. I think it’s the purity of the food and the experience, at least when it’s done right, when you’re sitting there at a counter, when the person on the other side is someone who has trained for 10 years, dedicated his life to it.
When it comes to sushi, I’m lucky. Back when I was dating the woman who would become my second wife (and second ex-wife), she was living in Malaysia and one of her friends was a Japanese man who was a classically trained sushi chef, running the sushi bar at a 5 star hotel. He taught her everything about sushi and then he taught me as well. Not about the preparation but about the consumption – how to tell good from bad, how to eat it properly, all that kind of stuff. Over the years, I’ve been to Tokyo at least 50 or 75 times, almost always on an expense account, almost always getting taken out to some of Tokyo’s finest restaurants. I’ve become somewhat snobbish about the whole thing. I can’t enjoy the food at Hong Kong’s ubiquitous cheapo sushi chains. When we go out for sushi, we’re going to go someplace where dinner will cost at least HK$2,000 for two, the type of meal that I can’t afford too frequently any more.
Anyway, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Jiro Ono is 85 years old and every night can be found behind the sushi counter of his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in the Ginza section of Tokyo. It is perhaps the best sushi restaurant in the entire world. It has ten stools at a counter, a meal starts at 30,000 yen (roughly US$380) and you can only eat there if you get a reservation at least one month in advance. Sukiyabashi Jiro has 3 Michelin stars and Mr. Ono is in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the oldest chef to receive 3 stars.
Jiro has been doing this for more than 60 years. His life is devoted to sushi perfection, a quest that he feels he has still not achieved. He has two sons. The oldest son is 50 years old and has worked under his father for 30 years, waiting for his father to retire so that he can inherit the restaurant. The younger son apprenticed under his father and then, since he wouldn’t inherit the restaurant, opened his own shop (a mirror image of his father’s) in Roppongi Hills.
The title of this documentary is meant to be taken literally. Early in the film, Jiro tells us that he does indeed dream of sushi at night, of finding the perfect flavors and balance. We meet Jiro, his sons, another chef who apprenticed under Jiro, a food critic and Jiro’s suppliers. Jiro only buys his tuna from someone who specializes in tuna. He only buys his shrimp from someone who only sells shrimp. His rice dealer refuses to sell the special rice that Jiro buys to the Grand Hyatt, or anyone else.
I think you get the idea. In 81 minutes, you’ll find out almost everything about Jiro, his sons, his staff (his wife is mentioned just once in the film and never seen) and the amount of work they put into choosing and preparing the fish, the rice, the seaweed; the thought that goes into how people are seated at the counter (he positions the sushi differently on the plate if he notices a customer is left-handed); the order in which items are served. If you watch closely, you’ll see that there is no little dispenser for soy sauce, there is no bowl of wasabi – each piece is perfect the way it’s served. The only thing you won’t get to do is taste the food itself, although watching this film will not only give you an appreciation for what goes into the tiny bit of fish sitting on top of a clump of rice, it will also make you very hungry.
I wouldn’t say this is a truly great documentary (despite the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It doesn’t truly rise above its subject matter to the point where it could be enjoyed by someone who has no interest in its subject matter. It tries. You don’t get to be 85 years old and be acclaimed a national treasure without having some philosophy and lessons of life to share, and we get Jiro’s thoughts on that, on the benefits of hard work, on loving your work, on succeeding despite growing up ignored by an alcoholic father and failing at school. I also liked that towards the end the filmmakers devote some time to the sustainability of sushi, how some types of fish are increasingly rare because they’re being over-fished, how the quality has gone down over the years. It may not be a transcendent documentary for the ages. But I think Jiro has some lessons to impart to all of us along with some seriously tasty fish.