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Portrait of a Sushi Master

New documentary a feast for sushi lovers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 9, 2012 11:27am ET

Don't arrive hungry when you see the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And if you love sushi (as I do), make tracks to see it. At the very least, it will give you an appreciation of why it takes years to learn how to make great sushi and what it can be like when it's done by the best. It's also an engaging portrait of Japan's most celebrated sushi master.

The film, in Japanese with English subtitles, opens today in New York and in other cities nationwide later this month.

Jiro Ono's restaurant, a tiny space in the basement of an office building in Tokyo's Ginza District, doesn't look like much. Neither does Jiro himself, a spry, slender 82-year-old who started as an apprentice when he was not yet 10 years old. More than seven decades later, he has no plans to retire, to the well-disguised frustration of his older son Yoshikazu, waiting to take over the restaurant. (According to food critic Masahiro Yamamoto, interviewed in the film, Yoshi actually made the sushi for the Michelin inspectors who awarded Jiro three stars in the current Tokyo guide.)

In his first feature-length documentary, director David Gelb shows an eye for telling detail. His camera focuses on Yoshi fanning nori (the green wrappers made of seaweed) over a charcoal flame to soften them. We glimpse the painstaking details as the kitchen crew prepares ingredients for dinner. We follow Yoshi through the Tokyo market and bicycling home with the day's purchases in a foam chest.

Most striking, though, are the images of the sushi itself. At Jiro, patrons reserve and pay $300 each months in advance for an experience that lasts about half an hour. There is only the counter, no tables. Each piece of sushi is served one at a time as soon as it's prepared. The camera captures the moment when the nigiri is placed carefully on the plate, the fleeting seconds when it settles into itself. I wanted to reach my chopsticks into the screen and eat one.

In that way (here's the wine angle), Jiro's intelligence, humility and willingness to sweat every detail mirrors what it takes to make great wine. It reflects the same appreciation for the source and quality of ingredients and similar care in preparing them to show them at their best. And, just as winemakers spend most of their time dragging hoses and hours tasting, tasting, tasting, there is the endless repetition as Jiro and his chefs pursue (but admit they never quite reach) perfection.

I also applaud Gelb's choice of background music. Much of it is by Philip Glass and other minimalists who revel in repetition but incrementally build from simple musical gestures into something impressive and beautiful. But when the finished product finally hits the plates, it does so to the classic strains of Mozart. Brilliant. (Check out the preview for a glimpse of both Jiro and Gelb at work.)

Anyone who appreciates sushi, as I do, must see this film, if only to remind ourselves of what great sushi should be. Too much of what passes for sushi in America involves fried items or spicy purees encased in cold rice and slathered with mayonnaise-based sauces. Also, my fellow Americans have gotten into the habit of mixing wasabi into their soy sauce to make an appalling sludge as a dip (often soaking the rice so it falls apart). These practices have become so common that, in defense, sushi chefs seem to have decided to omit the light smear of wasabi that traditionally goes on the slice of fish before wrapping it around the rice—and those of us who want classic sushi miss that tang when we dip the fish into a touch of soy sauce.

If for no other reason than that, anyone involved in making sushi should see it too. Please.

Michael Bonanno
CT —  March 10, 2012 12:06pm ET
Amazing. . Harvey, humor me. . If we were going in to that office building for an unforgetable sushi experience, what wine would you bring?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 10, 2012 2:06pm ET
For something that refined, I would choose a delicate Champagne. Or maybe a complex older Riesling spätlese.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 14, 2012 12:10am ET
I've had a love affair with sushi & luckily found a great place nearby that allows byob. I've had the greatest success with Gruner Veltliner, hands down. I'm not much on bubbly... but also had rewarding "outside the box" experiences with Pinot Noir and Grenache! Sounds like a really interesting movie, hope I get the chance.

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