There are oddities at Sukiyabashi Jiro that North American sushi lovers wouldn’t likely countenance. There is no menu at the 10-seat Tokyo sushi counter; what they make is what you’re having. The chef, who is nearly 90, has little patience for diners who let his creations languish, so easy on the chit-chat, please. Many patrons report feeling scared to eat in front of its famous chef. Dinner, which starts at about $300 a person, takes about 30 minutes.
The chef is Jiro Ono, widely considered to be the world’s best sushi chef, who works every day, at every seating, in spite of his advancing age. A new documentary about the chef, his restaurant and his long-suffering family comes to theatres across Canada this week. Called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the film balances hard-core and gaspingly beautiful food porn against a meditation on perfection and simplicity. Mr. Ono makes it clear he hasn’t reached the former; he says he has no idea what perfection would look like. Simplicity, meanwhile, is exponentially harder than it looks.
In one scene, an underling spends 45 minutes hand-massaging an octopus; in another, a sous-chef recounts being close to tears after his 50th or 60th attempt at egg sushi was deemed good enough to serve. In a particularly memorable passage, Mr. Ono’s son Yoshikazu, who appears to have never read Shakespeare, says “I wish my father could make sushi forever, but eventually I’ll have to take his place.”
In an admission that will shock some sushi aficionados, Mr. Ono dismissively calls fatty bluefin tuna belly – the extinction-bound fish’s most prized part – “simple,” with less flavour than rarer cuts. He still serves it, though. (If only real life were a mash-up of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and I Dream of Jeannie; all sushi would be beautiful, and, with a nod and a wink, bluefins would be restored to the non-threatened list.)
What stands out most, however, is how much training and judgment, and yes, beauty, go into a slice of fish on seasoned rice. If for that reason only, the documentary is dangerous. You can’t watch it without feeling the urge to blow a fortune on sushi – menu not required.