the rumpus

April 4, 2012

April 4, 2012

Husband-wife team, Tim and Erin Archuleta of ICHI Sushi, a tiny sushi bar in San Francisco, review a film about sushi legend Jiro Ono.

After watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I told my husband that it felt like I had seen a two-hour cinematic love letter. Tranquil footage of the familiarity of tiny plastic kitchen timers for rice; toasting nori (seaweed); scaling fish; butchering whole hirame (fluke); the familiar sounds of hands slapping and two fingers repeatedly pressing nigiri into place — it was a visual pattern that reinforced our daily routine.

Eighty-five year-old Jiro Ono has spent 75 years of his life dedicated to the art and spirit of attaining the status of being a shokunin. Shokunin is kind of a hard concept to explain; it’s like being a craftsman, but not to be confused with someone dabbling in a craft. It’s the aspiration of repeated perfection and completing one’s work with an overall purpose of serving the higher good and the people. Being called a shokunin is a compliment and status of the highest order when bestowed by Jiro to his sushi apprentices.

And, as in most kitchen cultures, there’s a language, an unspoken pact agreed upon by all participants: 1. Chef is in charge. 2. When Chef gives direction or a critique, respond only ‘Yes’ and do it exactly as s/he says. 3. Strive to improve constantly. 4. Do it the same (correct) way every time. The film reflects this familiar aesthetic for any chef, line cook, or those of us who have worked at restaurants and paid any attention to what goes on behind the burners.

But, in the case of Jiro, what the viewer is granted access to is how one man, starting a culinary path at age nine, becomes recognized as the best sushi chef in the world, working from his ten-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant at the base of the Ginza District of Chou, Tokyo Subway station.

Precision, repetition, and striving for continual improvement are Jiro’s ethics; he takes only one day off per year, a Japanese national holiday, and even then, is impatient to return behind his sushi bar. Reservations for the restaurant are made a minimum of one month in advance. Although, after this movie, Jiro and his eldest son and restaurant heir, Yoshikazu, will probably be unable to handle the massive interest for those ten well-attended-to seats.

The film, a debut full-length documentary by Director David Gelb, parallels the story between Jiro’s own family, with both of his sons as sushi chefs, and the regimented structure of his restaurant. Viewers are part of the routine, watching kitchen prep, wrapt in the repetition of the routine. It’s all framed by an entrancing soundtrack of Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, and Max Richter.

When his long-time friend, respected food writer and sushi critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, is asked if there are any differences in Jiro’s discipline or approach to preparation of sushi over the last forty years, he responds only that Jiro has “stopped smoking” after his heart attack. The line makes the audience laugh, and then pause. As a viewer, you fall in love with Jiro, who is so hard on himself, his sons, his apprentices. It occurs to you that Jiro is in fact human and fragile; he is one of the last of his kind. Jiro describes what modern people want from work. They want to have time to spend with their families; they don’t want to work too hard. This is not the life for Jiro. He has instilled his work ethic in his sons.

His youngest son, Takashi, has his own sushi bar in the family name: the Roppongi Hills location Sukiyabashi Jiro. Jiro and his sons openly address the challenge that so many Chefs de Cuisine and Executive Chefs face when working under a more prominent, beloved name. Jiro’s diners are loyal, and no matter how hard either Takashi or Yoshikazu work, the notion that the sushi is never as great as when Jiro is behind the bar will often cloud a diner’s judgment. Think about it, even your vacationing Aunt hopes to catch a glimpse of Emeril when she’s at his landmark French Quarter location.

A series of interviews explain the legend of Jiro’s restaurant. All of these interviews are strong connections or relationships. One of the most telling sections of the film highlights the relationships that Jiro and Yoshikazu have with their vendors. Father and son note, “The tuna vendor is a tuna expert. Our shrimp vendor is a shrimp expert.” Their devoted rice vendor brags that other restaurants with lots of money want to buy his rice, but he won’t sell it to them. Only Jiro deserves to prepare his rice. Everyone expresses that it’s not about the money. A counterintuitive notion for many of us, but these tuna vendors and shrimp vendors are carrying on family legacies and the weight of presenting only the very best every time.

Even in such a minimalist cuisine, there’s waste. In one scene, a sweeping view of the Tsukiji Fish Market’s back parking lot after a tuna auction, styrofoam fish boxes are piled as high the roof. One of the ocean’s biggest enemies is being bulldozed and lifted into the trash. Jiro addresses the shrinking ocean’s populations and when he began to notice good seafood becoming scarce, Anago (sea eel) was one of the first to go. He argues that sushi should be regulated and that fishermen should only seek the large tuna. They shouldn’t catch the smaller fish. He says business should balance profit with preserving natural resources.

The problem is caused by the ever-growing demand for sushi. As it has grown in popularity, over-fishing and devastating fishing practices are creating scarcity and extinction. In watching this film, one might also argue that if all sushi chefs practiced with the rigor and discipline of Jiro, his sons, and his apprentices, there would be a higher barrier to entry to being a true sushi chef or shokunin.

As soon as the film credits ended, we immediately Googled when it would be opening in San Francisco, so that we could buy a block of tickets and take our entire staff to see it. Jiro Dreams of Sushi validates the principles and rigorous standards we set for our own chefs and kitchen team at ICHI, pushing ourselves to serve sustainable sushi and be true to the craft of fish butchery, the use of an entire fish, and the practice of omakase (serving the chef’s choice of nigiri and sashimi with only the most skilled cuts). This film instills the age-old, teacher-to-student passed on practices that a true sushi shokunin must follow: to execute each task perfectly every time, and simultaneously, elevate that simplicity to a new, higher standard. This is a maxim that we live by, and would dream one day of just being able to stand in Jiro’s kitchen, washing dishes, watching a master and his team work.

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Erin is the co-owner of ICHI. In addition to her role there, Erin works as the Director of Field Operations and Strategy at the youth literacy nonprofit 826 National and is a class member of the Leadership San Francisco 2012 Trusteeship for the City of San Francisco. Recently, Erin represented ICHI in a business owners' roundtable discussion with House Leader Nancy Pelosi focused on the American Jobs Act, and was nominated for the 2010 and 2011 Women's Initiative for Self Employment (W.I.S.E.) Entrepreneur of the Year award. Tim has spent the past 16 years honing his skills behind the sushi bars of some of the most bustling, popular sushi and Asian-fusion restaurants in Northern California, including Tokyo Go Go in San Francisco and Sushi on the River in Sacramento. Tim has worked as a sous chef, kitchen manager, and restaurant manager before stepping out on his own in 2006 to form ICHI Catering, where he presides as Executive Chef and Co-owner. In September 2010, Tim and Erin opened the doors to their first restaurant, ICHI Sushi.