There is a scene in David Gelb’s documentary about world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono where his meal course is likened to a musical concerto. While Mozart’s lovely and effervescent Piano Concerto no. 21 in C, K. 467: Andante plays for the soundtrack, the camera follows the presentation of each piece of sushi in the dinner service as if it were filming some epic, otherworldly beauty, reverently capturing every simple yet remarkable detail of every morsel. It represents the crowning moment of many that inspire the most longing of hunger pains – even if you do not like sushi, it would be hard to imagine someone denying how enticing Jiro’s menu looks. Even so, the life and work eighty-five year-old chef proves calculating and intriguing enough to satisfy any viewer.
It would be an understatement to call Jiro a perfectionist. In Japan Jiro is known as “shokunin,” a term to describe an artisan whose soul responsibility within his craft is both a social and spiritual obligation to fulfill his own requirement. With only the minutest exceptions Jiro has worked every day for seventy-five years towards this goal, this requirement, and it shows in every aspect of his work. There is a highly specific way in which an apprentice must ring the water out of a hot towel. One apprentice explains how it took him months before Jiro was satisfied with how he cooked eggs. Well-trusted vendors who are all experts on a certain type of seafood carefully choose every piece of fish with pleasing Jiro’s learned palate first in mind. Only a certain type of rice is used, cooked and stored a certain way at a certain temperature. At a service Jiro carefully memorizes where he has placed each patron (there are only ten seats at the restaurant) according to their sex and dexterity while engineering each piece of food according to the diners’ size and sex to ensure everyone finishes together. There are some many details observed it isn’t hard to believe it took so long to master all of them.
Food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto iterates there are five qualities that make up a great chef: One, Take work seriously; Two, Aspire to improve; Three, Maintain cleanliness; Four, Be a better leader than a collaborator; and Five, Be passionate about the work. Jiro Ono is such a chef. It would be easy to dismiss his work ethic as obsessive, but that would be completely missing the point of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a glance into the life of a real shokunin, where life and work become one. Though we get to meet his two sons Yoshikazu, who at age fifty still works alongside his father as the heir to the Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant, and Takashi, who owns his own sushi restaurant, Jiro’s personal life is barely touched on. But then it would be justifiable to say that for a man who dreams nearly every night about making perfect sushi, who finds his greatest happiness in great fish, whose sushi bar unblinkingly received the massive culinary achievement of three Michelin stars, is as fulfilled in his life as he needs to be or would ever want to be. To do what you love and to love what you do, until the day you die: that is a blessed life.