A captivating look at the life of a sushi master
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is as elegant and tasty as the splendid sushi prepared by the man in the title, and that is saying a lot.
For octogenarian Jiro Ono, proprietor of Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro, just might be the best sushi chef on the planet. With fans such as France’s culinary legend Joel Robuchon, Ono was the first sushi wizard to earn three Michelin stars, and his restaurant looks to be the only such awardee that has just 10 seats in a subway station arcade with restrooms around the corner.
Director David Gelb, a sushi lover since childhood, came up with the idea of making a film about the best chef around. He consulted with food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who claims to have eaten in hundreds of Tokyo sushi restaurants and unequivocally votes Sukiyabashi Jiro as the best.
“Ultimate simplicity leads to purity,” is Yamamoto’s verdict, and Ono’s establishment epitomizes that. It serves sushi and only sushi, and despite prices that start at roughly $300 per visit, reservations must be made at least a month in advance. And because the chef discourages chitchat, you can be in and out within 15 minutes, making it perhaps the most expensive per minute restaurant in the world.
Several people, including Yamamoto, talk about being nervous when they eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro because of the high standards of the man himself, and Ono, ramrod straight despite being 85 when the movie was filmed, certainly presents himself with the severity of an unbending Buddhist monk.
But Gelb, who shot the master over a two-year period, clearly developed a rapport with the great man, and as the film progresses, we get insights into his past, his professional status and his personal life, as much as he has one. Forced out of his home when he was 9, working with sushi since he was 10, Ono is as strict with himself as he is with everyone else. A passionate perfectionist who believes “you must dedicate yourself to mastering your skill,” Ono, as the title indicates, literally dreams about sushi, waking up and creating dishes that have never existed before.
Meticulous preparation as well as high standards are what make his sushi so good. Fanatical about the smallest details, he makes his associates hand-massage octopus for 45 minutes before it is considered ready to serve. And one assistant talks of preparing egg sushi that was not up to the master’s standards 200 times over a four-month period. The first time Ono said it met the mark, the man cried.
Ono is particularly hard on his sons, who have apprenticed with him. Oldest son Yoshikazu, destined by Japanese tradition to take over from his father, probably expected the master chef to retire years ago, but it hasn’t happened. So he patiently works by his side while his younger brother gets to open a place of his own.
After Jiro Ono had a heart attack when he was 70, he did pass a key part of the running of the restaurant – the buying of fish at Tokyo’s enormous Tsukiji seafood market – to Yoshikazu.
Trailing along with him, the film introduces us to yet another rarefied world, where the fish vendors are as knowledgeable and demanding as Jiro Ono himself. One man will buy only the best tuna on offer; if he doesn’t get it, he buys nothing else. Another man is pointed out as the grandson of a legendary dealer known reverentially as “the god of sea eel.” No one takes fish more seriously than these driven men.
Even if you don’t fancy raw fish, “Jiro” is captivating. The uncredited cinematography, probably by Gelb, makes each piece of sushi gleam like a tiny work of art, and editor Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer does an expert job of cutting the footage to classical music, often Philip Glass’ works.
You may not dream of sushi yourself, but why Jiro Ono does becomes perfectly clear.