Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 documentary film by David Gelb about the wonderful things that happen when a man (85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, in particular) devotes his entire waking (and dreaming) life to a single creative purpose: making sushi.
Jiro Ono is the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny and unassuming sushi restaurant located underground within a subway station in Tokyo. This sushi restaurant serves exclusively sushi (the menu fixed each day according to a morning trip to Tsukiji fish market) and seats only ten. It also has three Michelin stars. Reservations must be made a month in advance and set menu prices are $300 per person or more.
Three Michelin stars, says a Japanese food critic interviewed in the film, means that it is worth a trip to Japan just to dine at this restaurant–which many do. Jiro receives them all in the same way, by staring at them impassively from behind the counter while they chew and swallow. They are eating his creations, after all; he would like to witness their reactions.
It would be hard to imagine a fine dining atmosphere more atypical than this humble sushi bar. I once had the pleasure of eating at a 2-star Michelin restaurant in France. We were served 22 courses over 5 hours, with impeccable table and wine service, and three different changes of location. A dinner at Jiro’s, on the other hand, might last 30 minutes–if you eat slowly. The decor is like any of the hundreds of small sushi-ya or ramen-ya or tempura-ya in the labyrinthian Tokyo subway underground. The service is accommodating but understated, and Jiro’s unwavering stare is rather unnerving, some of the diners remark good-naturedly. Those differences are moot, however. Jiro is not in the restaurant business to serve, but to serve sushi. In this incongruous environment he has labored since the restaurant’s opening to prepare what many consider to be the best sushi in the world.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi puts forward a profile of creative genius that is contrary to many of our Western cultural tropes. Quality sushi has a standard lineup of players that rarely changes and Jiro makes no exceptions, serving the same menu (at least on paper) as can be found in any sushi-ya. His technique, however, is constantly evolving, honed a little bit more every day in an untiring quest for perfection. A fascinating section of the film follows apprentices at the restaurant, who learn in the same way to slowly master each small task by incredible feats of repetition. A former apprentice at Sukiyabashi Jiro says that after ten years he was finally able to cook a decent egg sushi.
Jiro’s genius is not a mad flash of insight (Eureka!) or a chance epiphany (the apple falling from the tree)–it is persistence, routine, unceasing labor, and an insatiable striving for perfection. Even now, after more than 60 years of making sushi, Jiro says that there is room for improvement. He continues to work at his restaurant every day despite having a son in his fifties ready to take over, as well as a younger son with a sushi restaurant of his own. We are tempted to wonder if he has not sacrificed too much with regard to his family–interviews reveal that he was more of a stranger than a father to his two growing boys, and though left unsaid it becomes clear that there is little else to fill Jiro’s life except the craft of sushi. In family-values America we applaud successful professionals who step down from high-commitment positions in order to spend more time with their families. But Jiro is not looking to be a perfect dad, he is trying to make perfect sushi. Perhaps true creative perfection is at the cost of everything else. “One lives at the vampirism of one’s talent,” as Nietzsche has said.
This approach to artistic talent–that it is cultivated and earned with great effort and sacrifice over time, as opposed to inherit in the artist from the beginning, waiting to burst out–reminds me of a Top Chef episode I saw recently, in which highly skilled Japanese contestant named Kumiko was eliminated. Instead of reasserting her merit in the face of defeat, as so many of the other contestants do (“I know I still have what it takes” ; “My customers still know I’m the best,” etc.) Kumiko said simply, “I think I still have a long way to go to be a good chef.” Admitting imperfection, for her, and for Jiro, is not an admission of defeat. It shows just how high you are aiming.