Featuring: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono
Director & cinematographer: David Gelb
Australian release date: May 10, 2012
When I started baking sourdough bread, about 3 years ago now, I was alight with new obsession. I bought bread book after bread book, spent unseemly hours on bread forums, ploughed through many different recipes and techniques, extended my sourdough baking repertoire from breads to panettone, bagels, hot cross buns, stollen, fougasse, Kouign Amann (I’d never heard of it, either)…
Over time, and with the mania of obsession giving way to mere baking compulsion, I’ve begun to understand that repetition, not range, is the key to incremental improvement of all the little subtle elements – the unending minutiae – that separate the able craftsman from the master.
Elderly American-based (Vermont) French baker Gérard Rubaud is one such master. Rubaud has developed a single variety of mixed-grain bread that he repeats endlessly, fresh milling his grain himself for every bake, adjusting and tweaking his leaven and dough like a violin maestro tuning a Stradivarius. His bread is reputedly superb and in great demand from surrounding outlets, but supplies are extremely limited: Rubaud bakes alone, doing everything he can manually and using a traditional wood-fired oven, unwilling to compromise his quest for premium quality bread in any way.
Rubaud has a Japanese kindred spirit in 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. However, Jiro’s obsessive devotion to his culinary craft and to the impossible quest for perfection far exceeds even Rubaud’s uncompromising extremes – for 70 of his 85 years, he has been doing little else but making, eating and yes, dreaming of sushi! There is a Japanese word for a craftsman like Jiro, whose expertise derives from repetition of process over many years: Jiro is a shokunin.
With his eldest son and sushi-meister heir apparent Yoshikazu and a small, select crew of apprentice staff (an apprenticeship spans decades, so exacting are the master’s standards), Jiro runs a modest 10 seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station called Sukiyabashi Jiro. The establishment has become a site of pilgrimage for sushi lovers the world over since being awarded a 3 star rating – the highest possible – by that Bible of foodies (some would say food snobs), the Michelin Guide. No other sushi establishment has been rated thus.
A 20 course sushi banquet overseen by the master costs $300, is served at stools along a small counter, and is over in 30 minutes! Sukiyabashi Jiro is booked up months in advance. Jiro must be rolling in yen, but he cares not at all for money. His work is his pride, his joy, his meaning in life.
This is never so apparent as when he prepares for his clientele. The seating arrangements along the counter are discussed in detail, reviewed, re-organised according to gender and status. Acclaimed food critics and regulars are awarded pride of place along the counter, seated in the best vantage points from which to watch Jiro watching them!
As he acknowledges, his staff do all the hard work and preparation (eg: massaging an octopus for 40 minutes to ensure its flesh is tender) while he puts the finishing touches to the sushi and fine-tunes the presentation – which is as precise, symmetrical and salivary gland activating as you might imagine, aided and abetted by some tantalising and excruciatingly delectable close-ups. Part of this fine-tuning involves reducing the size of the portions of sushi served to female clients. And a good thing too, I say – leaves more for us blokes.
A note on sushi-eating etiquette for those who might be inspired to head to Tokyo to experience Sukiyabashi Jiro first-hand: apparently, one takes all of an item of sushi into one’s mouth at once – no nibbling, or biting it in half. Oh, and Jiro, not you, determines and applies sauces, wasabi etc and how much is right for each of the 20 different types of sushi he serves up.
As the meal progresses Jiro finesses his presentation and serving performance according to the responses of his devotees. The old master’s poker-faced but intense bespectacled scrutiny of his customers as they load his exquisite minimalist works of culinary art on to their tongues is unsettling. Indeed, one Japanese food critic who is a long-term advocate of Sukiyabashi Jiro confesses that he still feels nervous eating there!
While much of the film centres on the elaborate and entirely fascinating back-of-house preparations at Sukiyabashi Jiro (always overseen by the infinitely fastidious Jiro), there are some equally intriguing glimpses into the early morning activities at the premium fish markets from which Jiro sources his tuna and other seafood. Jiro’s favoured vendors are themselves experts of the highest order.
There are some disturbing observations on the depletion of world fish stocks. Some traditional varieties of sushi are no longer on Jiro’s menu because the types of fish used in their making are no longer commercially available, or are so rare as to be priced out of the market – unaffordable even for Jiro and his elite clientele.
We do not learn much of Jiro’s personal life (perhaps because he is so immersed in making sushi that he doesn’t have one!). We are given some meaningful fragments that assist in sketching a background that might hold some keys to his character and extraordinary life choices. For example, he and his brother were abandoned by their parents in childhood and left to cope for themselves. At 15, Jiro found his way into the world of sushi restaurants, and so discovered his destiny.
Single-minded devotion to a calling has a toll, of course. Jiro has no recreational pursuits, and views holidays as a waste of time that could be far better spent making sushi. We see nothing of his wife. His relationship with his sons is emotionally inexpressive, and he comes across as stern, though not uncaring. When his younger son, Takashi, flies his old man’s famous coop to start his own sushi restaurant, papa gives his paternal blessing but adds that there is no way back. Takashi must succeed or bust. Tough love? Well, perhaps, but in view of Jiro’s experience of abandonment in childhood, perhaps he knows no other way. Being cut loose worked for him – or did it? That is a question that haunted me long after I left the cinema.
Range or repetition? Or is the choice not so black and white?
Whatever, this film is a gentle character study, oblique yet captivating, and free of any sense of judgment. Further, it’s an intriguing glimpse into the zen-like business of creating exquisite sushi. But above all, it is a visual celebration of the sensory delight of fine food that transcends the in-yer-face food porn of TV celeb cooking shows, and will have you rushing to your favourite sushi bar without passing Go! It may be discouraging for those who like to DIY sushi at home, though. Sukiyabashi Jiro severely undermines the truism that nothing beats good ol’ home-made tucker!
Then again, I know that home-made sourdough bread beats the hell out of most bread you can buy, and if mine doesn’t measure up to Gerard Rubaud’s (which it surely doesn’t), well, what’s wrong with having the bar raised high? Gives yer something to aim for! And as every craftsperson knows, it’s the journey that matters most, not the getting there.
I find it gratifying that in this dreary time of trash-populist-culture, rampant materialism and careerism based largely on financial reward there are quietly triumphant craftsmen around like Rubaud and Jiro who have truly answered a calling, and for whom money and material gain are irrelevancies next to the ideals of perfectionism that drive them. Here’s to the shokunin!
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