Lessons from a sushi master
Earlier this week, my wife and I went with some friends to the Siskel Film Center to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a charming, immediately engaging documentary of surprising depth and power. Its subject is Jiro Ono, the chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the Tokyo sushi counter that has become one of the most honored restaurants in the world. It’s a tiny place, located on the ground floor of an office building near a train station, with only ten seats and no bathroom. A meal there costs 30,000 yen, or upwards of three hundred dollars, and may last no more than fifteen minutes. In terms of money spent per unit of time and food consumed, it’s arguably the most expensive restaurant in the world, but it seems to be emphatically worth it, if its three Michelin stars are any indication. (The movie contains a great deal of mouthwatering food photography—even the rice looks amazing.)
Jiro himself, who is now eighty-five years old, stands at the film’s center, but he remains something of an enigma. We aren’t told much about his early life, aside from the fact that, to put it mildly, he wasn’t close to his parents: he left home at the age of nine, and serenely recalls that his parents told him that “You no longer have a home here.” Rather than sleep at the temple or under a bridge, he says, he had to find a job. And while we aren’t told much about what followed, the implication is that he ultimately began the long, arduous apprenticeship to become a shokunin—a term that literally means an artisan or craftsman, but which more generally describes a sort of spiritual state, a daily commitment to craft that manifests itself in work of utter simplicity. To become a shokunin of sushi, the film tells us, takes at least ten years of apprenticeship, but while we learn a great deal about the apprentices at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro’s own route to mastery remains mysterious.
All the same, it’s refreshing for a film like this not to reduce Jiro’s life to a set of easy answers, although it does drop a few tantalizing hints along the way. A shokunin, we’re told, is someone who wants nothing more than to repeat the same set of actions every day, for years or decades if necessary. Few movies have done a better job of conveying the painstaking acquisition of artistic skill, not as some kind of magical process, but as a slow apprenticeship built on the agonizing accumulation of countless small failures: one of Jiro’s apprentices describes making the same egg dish two hundred times, only to always have it rejected—and when it was finally accepted, he says, he was so happy that he felt like crying. Jiro is hard on his employees, but no less hard on himself. He seems to do little in life but make sushi, think about sushi—and, as the title implies, he even dreams of it. Yet we’re left with the impression, not of a dreamer, but of a man who simply did what he loved every day, to the exclusion of all else, until he became the best in the world.
Of course, there were sacrifices involved. Jiro freely grants that he wasn’t a very good father—on the few occasions that he came home while his children were awake, they thought a stranger was sleeping in the house—and even at the age of eighty-five, it’s clear that his work means more to him than anything else. He takes days off only for national holidays or family emergencies, and whenever he isn’t at the restaurant, he’s waiting impatiently for the chance to get back to work. He won’t retire, he says, until he’s too weak or “too hideous” to come to the restaurant, and indeed, his refusal to stop working seems to have left its mark on his eldest son, Yoshikazu, now in his fifties, who expected to take over the restaurant fifteen years ago. Yet Jiro’s advice for his son is merciless and wise, and it stands as both a warning and a challenge to all of us on the road to mastery: “Yoshikazu just needs to keep it up for the rest of his life. He should keep doing the same thing for the rest of his life.”