January 11, 2013 8:08 pm

The art of sushi

A documentary about a family of Tokyo sushi masters shows culinary devotion taken to exquisite heights
Jiro Ono and his son Yoshikazu at work in their basement restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro

Jiro Ono (left) and his son Yoshikazu at work in their basement restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro

At Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, sushi chef Yoshikazu Ono buys an octopus and watches it rudely stuffed into a plastic bag; alive and straining its tentacles in a vain bid to escape. Wild shrimp, pale dappled brown, are so fresh they leap out of their crates, while eel and halibut swim hopelessly in boxes. The eerie carcases of prize tuna are auctioned in a bizarre fish trading floor.

If the fish can’t get away, neither perhaps can Yoshikazu, who wanted to be a fighter pilot, but instead was persuaded by his father Jiro to train, like him, as a sushi chef. Jiro is in his mid-eighties, Yoshikazu is in his early fifties, and both have worked ceaselessly in the art of sushi; Yoshikazu since his teens, his father since the age of 10. This month they take unlikely starring roles in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the funny, touching documentary of their work that was a sleeper hit in the US last year.

It’s unusual to see lives dedicated to food portrayed in such detail – and with such affection. The film-maker David Gelb followed “Jiro-san” in Tokyo over two separate months in 2010, having conceived of a Planet Earth-style treatment of different gastronomic subjects, starting with his own favourite food, sushi. “When I was first researching the project [the chef] Daniel Boulud insisted I use Jiro; he sees that he is a genius,” Gelb says. Indeed, Jiro is very much a chef’s chef – Joël Robuchon visits the restaurant once a year, and he has fans from Eric Ripert to April Bloomfield. “Jiro is a craftsman who has dedicated his life to finding perfection in sushi,” Bloomfield says. “He represents the old school in a world where people seem to want to do things faster and cheaper.”

The omakase menu at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the chef’s tiny 10-seater (and three Michelin-starred) basement restaurant, costs Y30,000 (about £215) and consists of 20 different pieces of sushi. It’s not cheap, but neither are Jiro’s methods or his ingredients. Yoshikazu is deputed to buy the fish at the market, where carefully chosen specialists are in turn trusted to supply only the very finest produce. The restaurant has its own rice dealer, Hiromichi, who has an entertaining cameo in the film, but such is the importance of this particular rice to the sushi that the exact variety was kept a close secret from Gelb. “They cook it under high pressure so it gets very fluffy but [this variety] retains its shape.” The rice, Gelb says, is crucial to balance the fish: “When I first ate there, it’s as if I’d never eaten sushi before.”

In Jiro, we see the small, six-man kitchen team sweating their way through a long list of daily chores: drying seaweed sheet by sheet over hot charcoal, massaging the (now dead) octopus by hand for 50 minutes to make its flesh more tender, marinating the fish, perfecting the rice, practising the cut of the fish and the assembly of the sushi over and over again. “Never complain about your job” is Jiro’s motto, and well before the film’s close you know he means it.

Anybody thinking of opening a restaurant will find an acute warning of the self-denying edge that perfectionism can teeter on. Tim Anderson, who won MasterChef in 2011 and whose own southern Japanese restaurant, Nanban, is set to open in London this spring, says: “As a chef myself, [the film] is both inspiring and heartbreaking; Jiro’s perfect sushi is only made possible by great sacrifices … I can’t quite decide if it’s a lifestyle I aspire to, or one I’m thankful to not be living.” Meanwhile Michael Voltaggio, the celebrity chef-owner of Ink in West Hollywood, liked the film so much he had a screening of it for his entire staff. (“They ordered pizza,” Gelb says.)

The common idea of the unhealthily hardworking chef does pall completely when you consider Jiro’s story. Aged nine, his bankrupt parents told him he had to fend for himself, and aged 10 he started working in sushi street stalls, progressing to an apprenticeship at a large and prestigious sushi restaurant before eventually opening his own place.

It required “a lot of persistence and patience,” Gelb says, to persuade Jiro to take part in the film. Today, in response to Jiro’s success, the restaurant “has been packed and the phone is ringing off the hook”, Gelb says. The sushi restaurant owned by Jiro’s younger son Takashi is also enjoying a bounce from the film.

But a shokunin, or craftsman, takes time to train, and there aren’t enough new ones coming through who, like Jiro, Yoshikazu and Takashi, are prepared to spare decades for fish and rice. As Gelb says, “They’re very concerned about that kind of craftsmanship; to find the young apprentices. It’s not a very high-paying job, their margin is thin.” But, he says “they’re hopeful the film will inspire people.”

‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ is on selected release in London, Bristol and Dublin, and screens at Picturehouse Cinemas nationwide on January 15. Visit Facebook.com/JiroDreams.

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