DAVID GELB’S 2011 DOCUMENTARY, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, concerns the life of the world-renowned master sushi chef Jiro Ono, proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a ten-seat, sushi-only restaurant in Tokyo, and his lifelong struggle for perfection.
The film is principally about mastery, but it is almost as much about simplicity, and about obsession. Master, for Jiro Ono, seems an inadequate description, or maybe society ascribes such a term too liberally. He is, if such a thing can exist, a master many times over in his craft. His restaurant has three Michelin stars (which means that it is worth travelling to that country simply to eat at that restaurant); top restaurant critics and Michelin inspectors say they have never had a bad experience there; customers say they are nervous to eat at the restaurant because Jiro’s skill is so intimidating.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he writes at length about the rule of 10,000 hours of what is called “deliberate practice”–highly-structured, goal-orientated activity––to achieve “mastery” in a given pursuit. If we work on the basis that most people work for eight hours per day for five days per week, and assume that all that time is spent engaged in deliberate practice, mastery would be attained after about five years. The eighty-five-year-old Jiro, who begins work at five o’clock in the morning, finishes at ten o’clock at night, and, famously, “dreams of sushi” in between, has been perfecting his art for seventy-five years, and he never takes a day off. The chefs determined enough to stay on at the restaurant under his tutelage (most quit after a single day) are only allowed to cook eggs at his restaurant after ten years of training.
At a talk at the Richmond Society earlier this year, Times columnist and former Olympic table tennis player Matthew Syed spoke about the growth vs. fixed learning mindset, and specifically “marginal gains”, small and seemingly inconsequential changes made that, cumulatively, lead to vast improvement across the board. It was hard not to be reminded of these marginal gains when Jiro spoke about the detail that goes into the creation and presentation of his sushi. If he notices––and he always notices––that a customer is left-handed, their next course will be served ever so slightly to their left. He serves women ever-s0-slightly smaller slices of fish.
But there is another side to Jiro’s quest for perfection. Jiro has forced both his sons to follow in his footsteps. Both wanted to go to college, he says, but he convinced them otherwise. A major part of the documentary is dedicated to the elder son, Yoshikazu, who is perpetually in the long shadow cast by his father and who will inherit the restaurant. The other son has started his own restaurant elsewhere in the city which is an exact mirror-image of his father’s––because he is right-, not left-handed.
The film raises interesting questions about life and its meaning. Jiro has sacrificed everything else in his life in the pursuit of the perfection of the art of sushi. His life’s work resembles addiction. He feels “ecstatic” to work every day, but miserable in the intervening hours. His relationship with his two sons revolves around sushi. He concedes that he has been more harsh on his sons than on the other chefs because he wants them to be successful and have a future. Jiro has little else in his life except the art of making sushi. Yet a chef who previously worked under Jiro says that “if he has any regrets, he’s crazy.” Does dedication to work make the good life? Does “ultimate simplicity lead to purity”, as the food writer Yamamoto says about Jiro’s sushi, or is there some tragic element to a life stripped down to the bare bones?
There is much to glean from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but I found the following quotation, by a shrimp dealer who supplies Jiro, most memorable:
“These days the first thing people want is an easy job. Then, they want lots of free time. And then, they want lots of money. But they aren’t thinking of building their skills.”