Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Sunday, 24 June 2012

I don't remember my dreams *sad face* but odds are that like Chef Jiro Ono, I also dream of sushi. I'm playing film critic this week:  two hits in 3 days (the first was Take This Waltz) must mean that I'm on fire, obviously. I first heard about Jiro Dreams of Sushi from The Thousands guide back in May. As soon as I saw that, I was itching to see it. As luck would have it (not), it was showing in one cinema in Sydney. So I had to wait till I was back, praying that it was still showing! I was really glad I got to see this gem. Here's why...

Warning: you will never look at sushi the same again. Though, it's probably for the best (shame on you, sushi train)
The movie poster acts as a visual menu - how delightful. And Jiro takes his rightful place in the limelight. Those macro photographs but mine to shame! Source: Berlin Film Society

Directed by filmmaker David Gelb, the film tracks the rise and rise of Jiro Ono and his family run sushi restaurant in Ginza, Sukiyabashi Jiro

Accolades - Jiro Ono was the first (and oldest) sushi chef to receive 3 Michelin stars. He has been described as the world's best sushi chef by the likes of Joel Robuchon and Anthony Bourdain and Japan has declared him as a national treasure. His hardwork and dedication once saw him receive an award during the day, only to return to the restaurant for dinner service that night. He is 86 years old and has had the same routine everyday for 75 years. Amazing.

Who - Shokunin (skilled craftsmen) Jiro Ono and his eldest son Yoshikazu operate Sukiyabashi Jiro. There is also a 2 Michelin-starred branch in Roppongi Hills run by Jiro's youngest son, Takashi. Some diners find they get too nervous eating in front of Jiro and would prefer the more relaxed atmosphere at Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi (lol). Jiro watches you as you eat each piece, noting your handedness (to place the sushi on the correct side), gauging your reaction - too much pressure!

Why so serious? The sushi dynasty of sorts. I loved hearing the scared apprentice stories. They really cop it (workload wise) too: they get to prepare the scalding hot towels (a right of passage) and tenderize the octopus by hand  (read: massage for 40-50 mins, the poor sod!)  Photo: Benjamin Oakley Wilson
Yoshikazu is the heir to the throne at Sukiyabashi Jiro. His father's reputation precedes him though and they are rather big (actually humungous) shoes/geta sandals to fill. Unfortunately for him, he has lived in his father's shadow for 30 years and will be compared to him for the rest of his life. But that's just how the cookie crumbles. 

Where - It's a tiny 10 seater found in the basement of a Tokyo Office Building. The restaurant is in the traditional Japanese style, without bells or whistles. The chefs prepare each morsel in quick succession in front of you. Each piece must be eaten straight away. The sushi speaks for itself. 

In succession, Chef Jiro Ono, his eldest son Yoshikazu and the 3IC (but more on him later). Photo credit: MovieCheeks
What - the Omakase menu or "Chef's recommended Special Course" is essentially a degustation of 20 freshly prepared sushi. This will set you back a tidy ~¥30,000 (US $370). Woo, nearly 20 bucks a pop - could you handle that? Probably one of the cheapest 3 Michelin-starred meals you can get!

I love the attention that Gelb paid to detail - the intricate processes, the delicacy of forming the rice in the hand, the gloss of the top coat of sauce (lush!). Gelb used super slow motion to great effect. It felt so reverential and like  watching artists at work. Which is true, to a certain extent. My favourite moments came when sushi was placed on the black serving dishes where it literally 'sighed onto the plate'. OH. MY. GOD.

One exceptional scene was the 'sushi concerto'. Played out to Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 21, one of the sittings at Sukiyabashi Jiro is filmed with such flair. The classical soundtrack was just perfect with Bach's Cello Suite no. 1 (Prelude) to top it all off. Each of the 20 courses is shown from start to finish and you are instantly transported into the restaurant, waiting with anticipation on one of the stools. Juuust magic.

Cue photos of glorious sushi:
Knock me sideways: I had no idea there were 3 different types of sushi tuna. I only knew of sashimi or cooked! From a bluefin there is akami (lean), chu-toro (medium) and o-toro (fatty). Well, now ya know...
Ebi: shrimp. So simple but oh so delicious...ah!
It's Anago! Oh my favourite...eel. I was so pleased to see this on the menu, this is the one I get every time. Photo: Hamsap Sukebe
La pièce de résistance: tamago. The final course of the omakase. Amazingly, it is only at the end of a 10 year apprenticeship that a training chef can learn to make the egg sushi. For, 3IC whom I mentioned above it took him 3 or 4 months and hundreds of attempts before Jiro gave his approval. At this, the apprentice cried tears of happiness. Their passion and unyielding drive to improve and please Jiro is incredible.
The aim of the game - it's simple really (sure sure)...serving sushi at it's "ideal moment of deliciousness". Rice is served at body temperature and fanned until it is just so. Nori sheets are tempered with heat from a grill. Mackerel is filleted when the fish is still alive (the fish was literally still gaping in the frame). And their knives were like samurai swords! Double edged blades with inscriptions down one side...forget Kill Bill!

The best of the best, Sir! - each providore that works for Jiro was a specialist in their field. The tuna man only sold tuna (watch for the tuna auction, it's a flurry of awesome), and would examine the quality of the meat by torch light. Each morning, after Yoshikazu returns from Tsukiji market with the fish for the day (personal bicycle delivery!), Jiro would taste the fish to ensure it met his exacting standards. The rice supplier had a special type just for Jiro. Jiro notes in the movie that the guy knew so much about rice that sometimes he thought he was making it up! 

Language barrier - the staff only speak Japanese (I wouldn't want it any other way) so it is best if you go with someone that speaks at least conversational Japanese. What a shame to miss out on their witty banter! Dang. The film is subtitled which did get a little annoying, I didn't want to be reading all the time. I want to look at the food!

The dilemma - almost as an afterthought, a few minutes were devoted to the issue of overfishing. The Japanese are notorious as the worst offenders, as whaling continues with so-called 'scientific purposes'. Yes, the staff acknowledge that it is an issue but without fish, their business wouldn't exist! So what do we do?! The doco End of the Line tackles overfishing and the devastating effect that it has on our oceans' ecosystem.

The verdict - sometimes, we need to hear about the little guy, the little fish in the culinary pond. Who needs your Ferrans, your Blumenthals and your Changs with their hocus pocus when you've got guys (and gals, I assume) who have complete mastery over the one thing that they do best. Another example that springs to mind is Pizzeria Da Michele in Napoli that specializes in 2 types of pizza: margherita and marinara (since 1870, punks). Ooh the memories :)

Let me tell you that Gelb has done a magnificent job. I LOVED this movie, and its not just because I'm a sushi nut (hey, I'm the first to admit it). Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the ultimate tribute to his craft. It is a feast for the senses (too bad you can't taste!), executed with a deft touch.

Consistency, precision and flavour. Nailed it! Photo credit: Hamsap Sukebe 
I feel like there is going to be a rush for bookings after the movie's release. I found a real-life review of the restaurant here. What a brilliant advertising campaign! Wait lists were 1 month when the movie was filmed but are about to blow out to much longer no doubt. Now everyone feels they must try Chef Ono's nigiri before he retires. Chef Ono has built a stirling reputation as a shokunin. More than half a century later, he is as disciplined as he ever was and works to live. Everyday he and his shokunin strive to do better every day which keeps them at the top of their game. I think Yoshikazu will do just fine with the legacy left by his father, I have faith.

If I didn't already have you hooked ;) Here's the trailer:

Happy days! I'm done. Thanks for reading! M


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