Shot from the film via Eater.com
The cult of the chef is a phenomenon that's been on the rise for a while now. And I can't help but think of it as good news for the sustainable food movement. I mean any emphasis on good cooking that uses quality ingredients has got to be a step in the right direction, culturally speaking. Here in the US we have famous chefs like Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, TV personality chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Alton Brown, and food activists that have become household names, like chef Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. On the local level, here in Austin, we've got superstars like Paul Qui, Andrew Curren, Ned Elliott, David Bull, Bryce Gilmore, and many more.
Well, in Tokyo, there's Jiro Ono, a man thought of as the world's greatest sushi chef, who, at the age of 85, still owns and operates Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 3-star Michelin rated, microscopic (there are only 10 seats), sushi restaurant located in a nondescript subway corridor. And in David Gelb's film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we learn that Jiro is obsessed, that Jiro is driven, and that Jiro just might have solved the mystery of what makes up a happy life. The answer? Just choose it.
At one point, Jiro states that he has never hated his work, not even for a day. Once he decided to become a sushi chef, he embraced it, and dedicated his entire being and countless hours to perfecting his craft.
When I heard him say this, that he's never once hated it, I thought: Well, that's a choice that he made about how to perceive his life, probably right around the time when he was deciding what kind of man he was going to be. And it's a choice that he keeps making every single day. Despite having a difficult childhood, wherein he basically had no parents and no means of support, Jiro dug in his heels, learned a trade, and through sheer determination and a positive attitude, elevated himself to the level of Artist. It's a path that any of us could take, if we only chose to.
In that way, Jiro is more than just an inspiring chef. He's a lifestyle guru.
But, in particular, if you love food, especially sushi, then you'll appreciate this film and come away with a deep admiration for Jiro, his sons, his staff, his eccentric tuna merchant, and even his rice guy who hilariously refuses to sell rice to the Hyatt, because they wouldn't know how to cook it.
In his New York Times review, Nicolas Rapold, accused Jiro of falling into hagiography and intimated that the film might benefit from delving further into Jiro's painful childhood. In a world of reality TV, where no man is interesting unless he's maimed emotionally or physically, I suppose that might be true, but I'm glad I didn't have to sit through that version of the film, because I would have come away poorer, with a grimy and diminished view of the world, rather than walking out wide-eyed and gloriously inspired.
I recall that in her review of Cindy Meehl's Buck, the film about Buck Brannaman, aka The Horse Whisperer, New York Times writer Manohla Dargis used that same word: hagiography, as if it were a bad thing, lamenting that the film didn't focus even more on the negative aspects of Buck's story. This modern trend toward humanizing by rooting through dirty laundry has its place, I suppose, but in response to that my thoughts always turn to a quote from the TV show Northern Exposure where, in a fit of anger over such an instance of over sharing, one character says to another, his voice full of desperation:
We need our heroes. We need men we can look up to, believe in. Men who walk tall. We cannot chop 'em off at the knees just to prove they're like the rest of us.
I really think we do need our heroes. And it seems to me that Jiro, in his enigmatically simple complexity, is a hero of sorts. He's a man who sees two choices: You can be a whiner, or you can be a fighter. And Jiro made me want to dig my heels in and make the most of this life, the only one we get.
Shot from the film. Jiro Ono, his eldest son (right), and the apprentices.