Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Vocation

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) is a documentary that peaks into the life of one of the world’s greatest culinary artists – Jiro Ono. Jiro is an 85 year old sushi chef in Tokyo who runs a ten seat sushi only bar inside a subway station, named Sukiyabashi Jiro. Yet because of his meticulousness and devotion to his skill, he has been awarded the coveted three stars by the Michelin Guide. Dinner at the restaurant starts at 30,000 Japanese Yen, which is $380 US, and people are willing to pay the price as seen by the fact that some patrons make reservations up to a year in advance.

The movie is a beautiful, amazing and thought provoking look into the mind of one who is at the top of his vocation. His sushi is simple and minimalistic, yet according to people who eat there, Jiro’s food has a depth of flavor that belies its simplicity. The Japanese food writer, Yamamoto, who guides the viewer through the movie, states that Jiro’s philosophy can be summed up by: “Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.”

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The movie does a great job, however, in showing just how meticulous not only Jiro is but his whole staff, from the quality of the fish they buy to the rice they buy to the handling of the ingredients. For instance, in the preparation of octopus, Jiro states that when he began he used to only massage it for 30 minutes, but now he, or rather the apprentices, massage it for 40-50 minutes. Another apprentice recounts how after 10 years he was finally given the opportunity to make the egg sushi, which is typically the last piece served. It took him over 200 attempts to make it according to Jiro’s standards.

What underlies his philosophy the most is how Jiro views his vocation. At the beginning of the film, he says: “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.” And his older son, Yoshikazu reiterates the same principle. The restaurant does not have any secret techniques; they simply make the effort and repeat the same process every day.

This is exactly what Jiro has done. He recounts how when his boys were young, he barely knew them because he would leave the house by 5am to be at the fish market and would not return home until after 10pm, when his boys would be asleep. When the movie was made, Jiro was 85 years old and still at the restaurant every day, tasting everything because if it is not up to his standards it will not be served.

The film is fascinating because it forces one to grapple with the question of the pursuit of excellence. Jiro’s whole life, including his dreams, has been devoted to the craft of sushi. But at what cost? The cultural dynamics make it all the more difficult to assess. Jiro’s two sons apprentice with their father, not by choice, and have learned to love the art of sushi like their father.

But Jiro also speaks against my generation’s tendency to want things quickly and easily. Life should be easy. Learning a vocation should be easy, and if it is not I will find something else to do. But Jiro’s apprentices work for him for decades, slowly learning the artistry of the craft. Sadly not many aspiring sushi chefs want to apprentice for Jiro because of the work involved.

As an aspiring cook, the dedication and sacrifice required to be excellent in the field are thoughts constantly on my mind. But what am I called to do? What is my primary vocation? Is it to be a husband and one day a father? Or is it to be an excellent cook? Or is it something completely different? Are there seasons when I should work longer hours in order to provide for my family but also to hone my skill? Or do I put Claire first, sacrificing my calling as a cook, to love her better?

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