It could be argued that a top chef’s challenge today is to meet the public’s seemingly never-ending fascination with novelty/gimmicky food. Of course that’s a cynical approach. The flip side of this is sometimes true innovation and – in some cases – genius.
Maybe this desire to change and constantly adapt to meet demand is why I found Jiro Dreams Of Sushi so brilliant. You see, with all the fiddly food that is being produced nowadays, simple but perfectly-executed food is what I find myself drawn to nine times out of ten when it’s my turn to book the restaurant. Sure, there are cases when a full-on tasting menu will blow my mind. But it’s the comfort of a flawless risotto or a well-cooked steak that do it for me most often.
This movie is 80 minutes dedicated to that exact simplicity and perfection in food. It’s a documentary that follows a three-Michelin-star chef. Not your average three-star chef…if there is such a thing. This dude is 85 years old. And he makes sushi. Just sushi.
He’s been doing it since he was a teenager and, for a large part of the movie, we are taught the art of being able to dedicate yourself to repitition. Indeed, the 10 000 hour theory put forward in Freakonomics came to mind as I watched. If ever there was a good example of practice making perfect, Jiro is it.
The movie is simply shot and touches on Jiro’s upbringing and his complicated relationship with his two sons. His eldest son is 50 years old and still grafts away under his father’s guidance. Surely able to stand on his own feet, and exist as one of the best in the world at what he does, he gracefully accepts the task of working under Jiro and sees it as a privilege instead of some kind of restriction. The younger son left Jiro’s to start up his own restaurant. His father’s comforting words of “if you fail there is no home for you here” are explained in detail by both parties. Again, the acceptance of responsibility is amazing to watch.
There are some incredible lessons to be taken from this movie, all of which tie in with food philosophies I have seen mirrored in all of our best local chefs. Here are a few:
1. Rather than building an empire and rolling out a whole bunch of restaurants, Jiro and his staff obsesses over his one small outpost (which seats 12 people). The lesson? Strive for perfection.
2. Apprentices work ten years before they are allowed to cook eggs. One, interviewed in the documentary, describes making tamago two hundred and fifty times before Jiro deemed it acceptable. And when he finally got the nod of approval he broke down in tears. The lesson? Humility.
3. Jiro’s “innovation” is so laughably simple . One of his major insights was to massage octopus for 30 minutes to tenderise it, instead of his usual 20 minutes! That was groundbreaking stuff in his restaurant. The lesson? Instead of trying to push the boundaries and re-invent food, sometimes you need to perfect the basics first.
4. The entry price to eat one FIFTEEN MINUTE meal at Jiro’s is about R3,500.00. The lesson? If simple items are good enough, they can still be top drawer.
5. Along the way we meet a rice dealer and a tuna dealer who are both at the top of their industries. They make a point of expressing that Jiro could get any ingredient he wanted for less from other people. Instead he has committed to the best produce and he goes to great lengths to find it. The lesson? There is no substitute for getting your hands on the best produce.
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s doesn’t have exploding buildings and the sexiest thing I saw in the whole movie was a whole tuna at a fish market. In other words, it’s for food nerds. But if you want to understand dedication to learning a craft (and perfecting it) this is worth checking out.
Go forth and eat,