Yanagiba (sushi knife), ohashi (chopsticks) properly resting on an ivory spotted seal hashioki, and David Gelb’s documentary of world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono. Let the feast begin.
The shots of sushi will wow you. Segments depicting 85-year-old Jiro Ono magically transforming rice and fish into pieces of art that are at once too beautiful to be eaten and yet must be eaten will mesmerize you. The manner in which he and his 51-year-old son run Sukiayabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant in the underground subway system in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza District will, perhaps, prompt you to make subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the way you run your own kitchen. At the very least, you are likely to come away from the film with a heightened appreciation of tamagoyaki – the grilled egg dish frequently served on nigiri sushi menus. Sukiabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant in the world to earn Michelin’s top rating – the coveted three stars. The simple definition of a three-star restaurant is this: a restaurant that by itself makes a trip to that country worthwhile.
As a self-taught chef, as a father, as a person who is seeking to perfect my own path in life, and as one who lived in Japan for nine years and came to deeply appreciate the Japanese sensibility toward life, this film profoundly moved me. Jiro Ono embodies the characteristics of the shokunin – a master craftsman or artisan who, while possessing superb technical skills in his field, is also aware of his responsibility to model an honorable life and to look out for the welfare of others. In the film, Masahiro Yamamoto, one of Japan’s leading food critics, identifies the five attributes of a great chef. These attributes are no doubt valued by all shokunin.
1. A serious attitude toward one’s work
2. Aspiration to improve – to strive for perfection
3. Cleanliness (which includes a proper order in one’s life and work)
4. Lead rather than collaborate
5. Bring passion to one’s work, (and through that passion to discover moments of ecstasy)
I’m going to add a sixth element to Yamamoto’s list. If Jiro’s life is about striving for perfection, the question is begged, “Perfection to what end?” To what purpose are the above five attributes?
It is this: They are all aimed toward providing others with an ultimate experience. Jiro dreams of sushi, yes. But what he really dreams of is providing his customers with a perfect dining experience. That is the sixth attribute: The desire to provide others with a penultimate experience.
Some of these attributes are, perhaps, antithetical to current western thinking. Therein lies the core of the criticisms of this film. Aren’t we supposed to value collaboration? Is the emphasis on cleanliness really so important? Is Jiro truly interested in others, or is he merely a shallow, self-inflated ego with no meaningful connection to other human beings – including his wife and his two sons? Doesn’t taking one’s work too seriously lead to imbalance in life?
I think this much is fair to observe: The path Jiro Ono has chosen in life is not a path that would suit everyone. But it is a path I admire. In the director’s cut, it is mentioned that a regret is that Jiro’s wife was unable to be in the film. This seems to be owing to the health of a woman in her 80’s, not about a failed partnership. His sons are both key players in the film, and speak of their father with honor, respect and love. They have both chosen to follow in his line of work, to embrace his teaching and have become highly respected sushi chefs in their own right. In turn, Jiro speaks with pride and admiration of both of his sons. As a father, I can very much relate to Jiro’s philosophy regarding child-rearing. You spend your life teaching and guiding, and in the end you hope a good bit of it takes root. In both of Jiro’s sons, his teaching did stick, his guidance payed off, and because his sons worked for many years in his restaurant, he ultimately spent more time with them than most fathers ever spend with their children.
As to taking one’s work too seriously and carving out one’s own path rather than collaborating, I grew up in a family wherein, not just in my nuclear family but in all the uncles and aunts in my extended family, the life philosophy most frequently espoused was an admonition to not take work (or anything else) too seriously. It was a philosophy that did not work for me, and ultimately inspired an opposing philosophy.
At the age of 4o, I began the long, sometimes arduous, deeply satisfying process of remaking my life. Part of the remaking has been rooted in a newfound freedom – a self-given permission to pursue life with renewed passion, dedication and a commitment to honor and excellence. As I move forward with this life as a sailor, chef, writer, photographer, father and husband, this film that so eloquently captures the life and spirt of a true shokunin resonates.