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Dreaming of Jiro’s Sushi

24 March 2012

(My original ticket for Tribeca’s screening on April 22, 2011. I finally saw the film on March 22, 2012)

It was just about a year ago when I first heard about the documentary on the 3-Michelin starred Restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, and its octogenarian chef/owner Jiro Ono. I couldn’t wait to see it. I was heading to NYC for Easter Weekend, and was excited that I’d be able to attend a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Sadly, my trip had to be cancelled and I had to sell my tickets. The film got rave reviews, and made a pretty big fuss as the first film to be sold at Tribeca in 2011. I moved on, but it never left my mind.

I was constantly reminded of the resturaunt at work, and whenever I went for sushi I’d think about Chef Ono and his skill. Similarly to how I was able to vicariously enjoy the food of El Bulli via Cooking in Progress, I wanted to experience his miraculous sushi. Then (to the rescue, as always) TIFF announced a limited run of at the Lightbox – I bought my ticket the very same day to see the film I’d been longing to see for ages, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Director David Gelb tells Jiro’s tale, the story of his tiny 10-person restaurant, and how he got to the height of culinary excellence with hard work, obsession, and focus. In that last sentence I wanted to write the word “creativity” but ironically Jiro’s food isn’t considered groundbreaking or innovative. Unlike the cuisine of the majority of what are considered “The Best Restaurants in the World“, we’re not talking about deconstruction and reconstruction, or molecular gastronomy, or even anything but traditional flavours and ingredients – we’re talking about fish on rice. Jiro hasn’t reinvented the wheel, he’s perfected it. He’s looked at every single aspect of his art and constantly tried to improve it. He’s spent decades (and decades) fine-tuning the entire process to make what is simply considered the most delicious sushi in the world. Simple.

If you are familiar with the Michelin rating system you’ll know that it’s not exactly the chefs themselves who receive the stars. It’s their restaurants. I’d say at the majority of Michelin rated restaurants in the UK, Europe and USA the chefs whom were awarded the honour of the stars are very likely not doing service day-in and day-out. The majority of the work on any meal is a team effort, and while the chefs are certainly credited for their inventions and recipes, it’s the executive chefs, chef de cuisine’s, chef de partie’s, sous-chefs, and stagiaire’s who are churning out the quality and consistency that’s required to receive those stars. In the documentary we do get to meet the young (and not-so young) apprentices that work under Chef Ono to keep the tradition of quality and excellence at this restaurant, but make no mistake that Chef Ono is still there, every day, creating the finished product for nearly every one of his patrons. In many ways this makes him personally more deserving of the Michelin stars than many other chefs who have been bestowed the same.

The documentary also lets us get to know Ono himself, from his difficult childhood, through the second world war, on to family life and cuisine, and finally his legacy. Older son Yoshikazu works tirelessly at his side, and is for all intents and purposes a younger version of Jiro – teaching and perfecting the skills and knowledge that he has learned over his lifetime from his father, awaiting his turn as the head chef, while knowing that it’s unlikley to happen while his father is alive. Ono’s younger son Takashi was sent forward with his father’s blessing to start his own branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills – a mirror image of his father’s restaurant (as he is right-handed, Jiro being left handed) he is considered a master of his craft as well. We get to experience the vivacious fish market, meet a few of Jiro’s choice vendors, and learn exactly what he thinks it takes to be the best in the world at something.

Beautifully shot by Gleb, who clearly has the utmost respect for Jiro Ono. He makes fantastic use of a wonderful score and hyper-slow-mo for some food preparation shots. At one point our guide Japanese restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto refers to the meal that you’re served as a symphony, and Gleb plays directly with this theme throughout by taking you on a journey to experience the breadth of the story he is telling, to experience the resaturant, the chef, and an entire meal as best you can on film.

I will have to say that the pacing did stumble only slightly near the 2/3rd mark of the film. Documentaries can be tricky on finding the right tone and story to tell, and I just think that they offered a bit of a summary too early – I honestly thought the film was winding down, luckily my disappointment was soon relieved as the film continued to its rightful length.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is considered a restaurant that is worth an entire trip to Japan, in which case it only stands to reason that Jiro Dreams of Sushi is definitely worth making a special effort to see (3 Michelin-Stars AND 96% Fresh! What are you waiting for?).
The release is extremely limited, so at the very least watch for it coming to DVD.