Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Tuesday May 15, The Bijou Theatre, 275 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 332-3228, thebijoutheatre.com
Conventional service-industry wisdom has it that restaurants should always strive to make their guests feel relaxed and comfortable. But maybe that’s just for the weak-willed. As the Soup Nazi proved, people are willing to endure humiliation to get a delicious meal. And perhaps the emotional punishment only adds to the gustatory pleasure. The film Jiro Dreams of Sushi — a documentary about a man considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef — suggests that many patrons at his Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, are on edge, nervous and intimidated when they go to dine at his 10-seat establishment. Food writers, honored guests and colleagues all profess to being a little uncomfortable eating sushi under the monklike stare of the master behind the counter. But with sushi this good, people gladly spend roughly $300 per person, make reservations a month in advance.
There is such a thing as life-altering sushi. Fish and rice and vinegar and seaweed so perfectly balanced and simple that the depth of flavor presents a paradox: How can something so basic be so good? Most of us haven’t had this kind of next-level sushi. But even mediocre sushi can be transcendent, so imagine what the finest sushi does to your taste buds. The movie can’t leap the sensory divide — it’s still just moving pictures, people talking and a soundtrack, with nothing to taste in the end — but it gives a tantalizing glimpse of what otherworldly sushi might be like.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is filled with food porn. There are slow-motion money shots of chefs carefully filleting a fish, toasting seaweed, massaging octopus (to tenderize the flesh and bring out its flavor) and fanning rice in large wooden bowls (the temperature has to be just right — at body temperature, we’re told). There are dozens of close-up shots of Jiro and his older son Yoshikazu (his presumed successor) placing single pieces of sushi — fish delicately pressed and folded over and on top of small pieces of rice — on to perfect rectangular slabs of shining black pottery that look like obsidian tablets. (There are moments where the slo-mo shots and the Philip Glass-like arpeggiations of the soundtrack come off as a bit grandiose.) Footage of the world famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo showcases the many levels of obsessive talent that go into providing first-rate seafood to someone like Jiro. (A tuna auction provides a sense of the theatrics and tradition associated with fishmongers in Japan.) All of the vendors and distributors are in awe of Jiro; they save their best stuff for him. And he has mutual respect for them. The tuna vendor is a tuna expert. The shrimp vendor is a shrimp expert. We see the tuna guy pressing pieces of fish flesh between his fingers, shining a flashlight on it, inspecting the meat like a jeweler does a gem. These men don’t think of their work as a casual day job to be frittered through.
One of the themes of the film is that people should become masters of their craft — no matter what it is. “Once you decide on your occupation, you have to immerse yourself in your work,” says Jiro. “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”
That might not sound cool to an American sensibility that’s invested in the idea of recreation and relaxation. All work and no play, et cetera.
You could say that we in the West — particularly in America, perhaps — have a messed-up idea about the importance of individuality and forging your own way when it comes to artistry and creativity. We often tend to embrace the theory that true genius means overthrowing established traditions, coming up with new methods, unknown techniques, etc. In many Asian cultures, especially in Japan, mastery and visionary status are often only earned through painstaking — what many of us would call mind-numbing — repetition and an almost selfless devotion to old, maybe even ancient, traditions. To do the same task over and over again strikes many of us as boring, but that’s how artists master their craft in Japan — whether in ink-brush painting, pottery, flower-arranging or cooking. You might work for months or years on one basic step before getting to progress. Jiro acquired his work ethic by having to fend for himself from the age of nine. Fear of failure was foundational for him. “I didn’t want to have to sleep at the temple or under a bridge,” he says. So he learned to get really good at what he did.
We learn that one of Jiro’s apprentices worked for three months on making grilled egg sushi, with hundreds of attempts getting rejected by the master as unacceptable before earning approval. Similarly, a prominent Japanese food writer tells us that apprentices must first master the preparation and presentation of hand-squeezed hot towels (handed to diners at the start of a meal) before getting to cut fish. It’s painful — scalding — training; “very Japanese,” he says. And Jiro and his staff, with shaved heads and white shirts, look like severe, ascetic flesh-mortifying Buddhist monks in their restaurant.
But all of this tradition isn’t necessarily constraining. The movie gets its title from a story Jiro tells about how he’d work all day making sushi and then dream up new preparations, techniques or combinations in his sleep. So he’d get up and try new things in the morning.
For culinary geeks, there’s plenty of artistry to pick up here. Simply watching the ways that the chefs use their fingers — in many different combinations — to assemble the sushi, or getting a glimpse of the technique for lightly smoking fish over a straw fire, or how they apply extra pressure to the rice as it cooks, all of this will make the film worthy study for any seafood-obsessed chef. But the interpersonal drama within the story is about family, succession, honor, child-rearing and legacy.
Can Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu, now in his 60s, ever fully carry on his father’s extreme level of artistry? (Another younger son has started his own restaurant across town, an almost exact replica of his father’s place, but a little more laid back, for all the people who find the master too intimidating.) Jiro was 85 when the film was made. He was the oldest chef to have ever been awarded three Michelin stars. “Sometimes when the father is too successful the son can’t surpass him,” says one of Jiro’s former apprentices, now an accomplished sushi chef himself. “Jiro’s ghost will always be there watching.”
But Jiro remains an obsessive worker. He doesn’t want to retire. And Yoshikazu says he wishes his father could make sushi forever. Yoshikazu seems to have fully embraced his father’s ethos of dedication and repetition.
“If you work hard, you’ll get good over time,” he says.
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