Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the new documentary out March 9 about three-star Michelin chef Jiro Ono of Tokyo, is, yes, high-gloss food porn. But it’s also a keen paean to craft, a methodical investigation into endurance and a quietly powerful meditation on familial small-business dynamics in a conservative culture.
Directed by David Gelb — a young filmmaker whose past credits include a consideration of the rock band The Hold Steady and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness — the movie was shot in 2010 and draws a portrait of both the renowned 85-year-old chef/owner of the ten-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro and his 50-year-old eldest son Yoshikazu Ono, who has spent decades patiently waiting to take over the restaurant. “The setting is sushi,” says Gelb, “but the story is purely human: this father and son, and the relationship between them.”
Before settling on Jiro, Gelb shot a short test film about famed L.A. “trust me” sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, who closed his doors on Feb. 28 after a quarter century at his omakase-only Ventura Blvd. address, much to the chagrin of longtime fans Trent Reznor and Ray Romano. But whereas the arch-traditionalist Nozawa has always appeared annoyed by California-style sushi—all of that avocado and anything wrapped as a roll—Jiro, apparently, is only bemused.
“He’s aware of American sushi and he doesn’t condemn it,” says Gelb, whose own favorite L.A. sushi spots include the pedigreed sanctums Zo, Karen, Gen and Hama. “He just thinks it’s kind of hilarious because of the things we do with it, like the idea of a Philadelphia roll. It’s like if we were to hear that the Japanese were making hamburgers out of cotton candy. It’s just bizarre to him.”
As for Gelb, what surprised him most during his months of filming in Tokyo was the sheer length of training that apprentice chefs undergo. “[Head chefs] don’t even allow you to make the egg [tamago] for ten years—let alone cutting the fish!” says Gelb, whose luscious, crystalline cinematography on Jiro was inspired by BBC’s Planet Earth series. “Here in America, chefs train for maybe two months. So the level of study is so different there. The patience that the assistants have is just different. You are basically becoming a doctor of sushi, the amount of time you put in.”
Gelb’s experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro — where not just the quality and preparation of the fish is so intensely scrutinized, but the precise nature of the rice, soy sauce and seaweed too — has irrevocably changed the way he dines back home in L.A. “I used to eat sushi 10 times a month,” he says. “Now I eat it a lot less often but eat a lot better when I do. I’m willing to pay five times as much. I treat it as a delicacy, which it is.”