Lessons from Jiro Ono - a World Class Sushi Chef

Jiro Ono (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

85 year old Jiro Ono of Sukiyabashi Jiro is an exceptional sushi chef. He is so good in his craft that his tiny 10-seater restaurant in a subway in Tokyo is accorded with three Michelin stars. And he is still working there, almost every single day of the year.

Naturally, Jiro makes extraordinarily exquisite sushi. His restaurant is so popular that you have to book at least a month (or longer) to get a seat in his restaurant. Prices start from 30,000 yen (about S$383) per person for a 15 minute meal of about 19 pieces of sushi (plus sake, beer or water). This makes it the most expensive restaurant in the world by the minute!

Oh, and they serve nothing but succulent superlative and stupendous sushi.

Food porn at its best (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Thanks to the stunningly filmed documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" by David Gelb of Magnolia Pictures, my son and I learned what it took to be a world class sushi chef. While the food served was luscious and mouthwatering beyond compare, what really struck me was the sheer hard work, focus and dedication behind producing each tantalising morsel of delicate seafood goodness.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi movie poster (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

As the story of Jiro and his two sons unfurled, we discover that Jiro has been making sushi for 75 years. Left to fend for himself at the tender age of seven (his dad ran away, and I guessed his mum didn't do much), Jiro's early years were full of hardship. In a bittersweet interlude, his 50-year old son Yoshikazu related how he mistakenly shook a bottle of Coke to "dissolve its powder", resulting in he and his brother wasting the precious drink when its contents gushed out of the container.

So what were the insights gleaned from the kitchens of Jiro Ono?

Passionate Purpose
As you could imagine, Jiro Ono is extremely passionate about his craft. Being a sushi chef was his one and only love in life (perhaps besides his wife and two sons), and he threw his heart and soul into it. Leaving his home at 5 am daily and coming back only at 10 pm, he admitted becoming a "stranger" to his two sons and spending very little time with them when they were young.

Quoting Jiro from the movie:

"I've never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I'm eighty five years old, I don't feel like retiring. That's how I feel."

One doesn't become a three Michelin starred chef by sitting back on one's haunches. Jiro's obsession with perfection was seen in how an apprentice had to take 10 years of fish and food preparation before being allowed to cook tamago (egg omelette). The apprentice would then need to cook a total of 200 times before he could pass and qualify as a shokunin (artisan). Indeed, the sushi master and his apprentices embrace lifelong learning, each and every day.

"Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve upon yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft." - Jiro Ono

In a world of infinitesimal attention spans splintered by screens, Jiro and his all male crew display infinite patience and stamina. Every day, they go through the same routine. His son Yoshikazu will visit the Tsukiji fish market before dawn to buy the freshest fish, shrimps and seafood from the best fish vendors. At the restaurant, his apprentices will go through the same repetitious routine - washing the rice in a certain manner, scaling, deboning, slicing, and so on.

"I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is." - Jiro Ono

Jiro's all male staff (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Yes, the art of sushi making is also about science. Every single step of the process is carefully calibrated and precisely done. I read somewhere that every single sushi rolled should have about 50 grains of rice - plus minus a few here and there. Exacting standards are also placed on how thinly the fish should be sliced, the amount of fish fat in different portions, and the need to massage the tako (octopus) for 50 minutes to soften its rubbery flesh and to serve it warm to bring out its flavour.

"Each ingredient has an ideal moment of deliciousness." - Jiro Ono

Focus and attention to the finest detail. That's how world class chefs and their restaurants are made. In Japanese culture, this also translates to a very narrow areas of obsessive-compulsive excellence that is undiluted by distraction. Sinseh Jiro is extremely exacting in the quality of the rice he buys, the way in which the sushi is served, and the absence of any visual distraction in his restaurant.

Every item in the restaurant is channeled towards distilling the finest essences of flavour embodied in the delectable morsels of fish, rice, vinegar, shoyu and wasabi.

"Ultimate simplicity equals purity." - Jiro Ono

The best thing about watching the movie? Well, other than causing our mouths to water and my gastric juices to start pouring out, it created a teachable moment for me and my son. While I mused over the insights which Jiro Dreams of Sushi presented to me, I also hoped that it would spur Ethan to don the mantle of discipline, focus and perfection needed to excel in whatever his heart desires.

Here's a trailer of the movie to whet your appetites. If you haven't already watched it, go grab a copy. I guarantee that it'll change the way you view your life and work.

"Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably." - Jiro Ono

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