An old man with an impassive face and rimless spectacles, Jiro Ono runs Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi bar in the Ginza subway station in Tokyo. At 85 years old, the master Ono is focused on his three-star Michelin restaurant, where the bill begins at 30,000 yen (about $360) and can go far higher. He works with his grown son, who is fiftyish, and a senior apprentice who will never see the happy side of 60 again. Ono is widely considered the world's greatest sushi chef, demanding yet intensely creative.
The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows Ono and his quest for culinary inspiration, beginning with his past, which is bleak. His parents, he said, "never took care of me." Ono left home at nine and apprenticed at a restaurant. There, he was told that "the history of sushi is so long that nothing new can be invented."
For decades, Jiro has sought to overcome that challenge, literally dreaming of new morsels in the rare hours when he isn't working.
As triple-X food porn, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is rapturous. By the time it's over, the viewer feels like an expert on tuna, from the fatty to the leanest. We note the toughening of apprentices' hands—wringing out the extremely hot towels given to the customers at the beginning of the meal—and yet pieces of sushi must be handled like you'd handle a baby chick, says Ono. That's not the only thing delicate here; the future of sushi, in light of overfishing, is touched on as well.
If Ono's firmness weren't tempered by a sense of humility, the documentary would be unwatchable. But the emphasis on self-sacrifice leads to a Guy de Maupassant–style question: Just how much has Ono actually been involved during some of the most celebrated moments of the restaurant? At this point, is he a figurehead? How possible is it to be Jiro, to try to live these dreams of perfection?
'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' opens Friday, April 6, at Summerfield Cinemas.