One reason it’s so hard to get a table at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the unprepossessing sushi restaurant wedged beneath an office building just next to a Tokyo subway station, is that the place doesn’t actually have tables. It’s just one narrow counter and 10 seats. Another reason is its three-star rating from the Michelin Guide, which means people with the authority to say so think it’s officially worth traveling to Japan from wherever you are just in order to eat there.
Cleverly, filmmaker David Gelb got in by making a documentary about the proprietor. Jiro Ono is widely reported to be world’s best sushi chef, and as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” reveals, he sets an elegant if also daunting example for devotion to his work. The title of Gelb’s reverie does not exaggerate. “I would jump out of bed at night with ideas,” recalls the 85-year-old master, whose lifelong meditation on those ideas seems worth tracking, cinematically, whether you covet that elusive reservation or not.
The first question: “What defines deliciousness?” Gelb proceeds judiciously to establish the necessary conditions for devising an answer. It seems useful, generally, to understand that umami is both a harmony of flavors and the feeling it provokes, which makes you say “ahh.” It also seems useful to really be able to concentrate on that understanding. Between shots of highly skilled hands at work and glistening fish-flesh closeups come glimpses of family history, supplier subcultures, and other useful bits of context, but the prevailing aesthetic is an artful, slow-motion austerity. And if Gelb’s veneration becomes repetitive, it must be at least in part to establish character essentials. We learn early on that Jiro gets on the subway from the same place on the same platform every day; it becomes clear, and crucial, that the restaurant’s asceticism extends directly from the man himself.
The unexpected elation of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is that it doesn’t just make you want to eat. It makes you want to be great at making something. And it shows you how: To be ashokunin, a sort of socially responsible and spiritually resolute artisan, clearly requires much dedication, patience, and pride. Other trade secrets in this case include 45-minute octopus massage, avoidance of serving appetizers, and carefully pressurized body-temperature rice acquired from a dealer who says he won’t sell it to a big hotel because only Jiro really knows how to cook it.
Also, his staff’s apprenticeship is long and strenuous. One subordinate reports needing more than 200 tries to grill an egg custard that meets the boss’s standards. Jiro’s older son, still an apprentice at age 50, works by his side and evidently forever in his shadow. Across town his younger son runs another sushi restaurant, known for a more relaxed atmosphere by customers who tend to feel nervous when eating in front of Jiro. It’s true: He hovers. Even one eloquently effusive food writer admits to getting nervous with each visit. (Which is not at all to say unsatisfied.) What’s more, the son who left was informed by his father upon departure that he’d have no home to return to. Well, yes, eschewing failure is one way to encourage success.
Pleasure taken seriously does have its consequences, but these also include a reciprocity of zeal. Certainly, by now, sushi dreams of Jiro too.