Sushi: A Singular Focus

The message in Jiro Dreams of Sushi transcends way beyond fish and rice

This is a genuine article about a genuine article about a genuine article. Let’s start at the end. The last genuine article would be what some consider the best sushi in the world, or, more precisely, the chef who prepares that sushi. Next is the movie about the chef and his sushi, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which was featured at the Wisconsin Film Festival and then held over for a run at Sundance Cinemas. And, finally, what this remarkable story tells us about one’s passion for a craft and by extension one’s passion for food.

Eighty-five-year-old Jiro Ono owns a ten-seat restaurant in Tokyo that serves only sushi. But that sushi is so good it has received the highest rating possible by the Michelin Guide and requires of its customers around the world a minimum reservation time of one month and the willingness to drop, say, 300 bucks or so on lunch. Jiro has been making sushi for seventy years, and the images in the film pay reverence to that dedication. The quirky relationships with his fish purveyors, meticulous preparation of the ingredients and especially the handwork—several series of scenes of hands with seventy years of experience gently combining the different fish and rice with a delicate brush of sauce—all suggest a dedication to the craft that exudes passion.

Here we pause and reflect on the current state of cooking in our culture. There is a huge contrast between Jiro’s Zen-like personal striving for perfection and the “chef as celebrity” that has taken hold in American food. The intricate yet simple design and execution of Jiro’s sushi make the American food “competitions” seem like a different genre entirely. Some of this is cultural, to be sure, but it is so moving to be in the presence of someone committed to their craft from such an internal place that perfection isn’t part of achieving star status but rather an inside force to be the best and to be constantly improving.

Jiro has pared down his cooking to one item—sushi—served one piece at a time, about twenty in all, in a presentation orchestrated by him, a sitting that lasts roughly thirty minutes. No cocktails. No appetizers. Just one piece of sushi on a plate, with a little pickled ginger. Jiro has indeed dreamed of sushi, creating combinations of fish and rice no one else had ever thought of before. It’s what he does. In fact, it’s all he does. And that’s where the story veers away from that which the images tell.

As Jiro talks about his life, and as others talk about Jiro, issues of personal history, family and culture emerge as complicating factors. Jiro, as we would describe it today, has no life. He as much as says he’s not happy unless he’s in his kitchen making sushi. His two sons have chosen to pursue similar lives: the eldest will take over Jiro’s restaurant someday while the youngest runs a sister restaurant. But it’s hard to tell if this introduces an element of sadness to the story or if it is a result of the circumstances of one individual’s life that ultimately explains the single-minded, passionate pursuit of what is ultimately unattainable perfection, but is clearly admired, respected, honored and sought after.

It’s important that we wrestle with these issues, because that is the real value of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film challenges each of us to think about our own pursuit of something better—of doing what we do better—and of our own passions. At the same time it challenges us to think about what we consider excellent, what we describe as “the best,” and what we admire, respect, honor and seek. The magic of the film is that all of this is captured in one man’s face, and in a single piece of sushi.  

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Read more Genuine Articles columns here

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