In the United States, it’s not unusual to find great food in tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. There’s some incredible barbecue served out of tiny shacks, and some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten have come from a small gas station. But Jiro Ono has taken this to another level. He’s created a world-class sushi restaurant in a small shop right next to the bathroom in a Tokyo subway station.
At 85 years old, Jiro is the oldest chef ever to receive the highest culinary rating of three Michelin stars, and he’s also the first sushi chef to receive that honor. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, only has ten seats, and you have to book your reservation a month in advance. But because service is fast-paced, and because you should eat the sushi immediately as soon as it’s presented for the best possible flavor, it’s not unusual for your $350+ meal to last only 15 minutes. They only serve sushi, so you shouldn’t go there if you want a variety of food or relaxed conversation, but if you go there for the sushi, then you’ll probably not walk away disappointed.
There’s nothing particularly magical about the way that Jiro is able to create this incredible food. He uses techniques that are fairly well known and the best ingredients he can find, but it’s his experience and dedication to quality that makes all the difference. He started as a sushi chef’s apprentice at age ten, and has been in the business of making sushi for three quarters of a century. Jiro’s routine hasn’t changed much in decades (although he now lets his eldest son Yoshikazu go to the fish market ever since Jiro’s heart attack at age 70), and he’s still up before dawn and stays at it until well after dark every night. Yoshikazu will take over in his father’s footsteps when Jiro is no longer able to run the business, but the way things are going now, that may still be several years away.
This is a fascinating documentary that is mostly as simple and minimalist as the sushi and the chefs that it features. You’re not going to find impressive graphics or animation, nor will you be bombarded with statistics or mountains of data. You’ll see men who love what they do and have worked hard to get where they are, and yet are still not satisfied with whatever level of success and notoriety they have achieved.
If there is a flaw in the documentary, it is that even with a short runtime of only 81 minutes, it doesn’t always stay as focused as it should. There’s an unusually long segment during which we’re simply watching men working at a fish market without any interaction from Jiro or Yoshikazu, and later in the film we take a trip with Jiro to his hometown in which nothing happens that’s really got any relation to food or the restaurant. While the purpose of this trip is likely to help humanize Jiro, that’s not something that’s even remotely necessary because he already comes off as one of the most genuine and firmly-grounded people you can imagine, in addition to being an upbeat and completely adorable perfectionist. While his skill may put him at the very top of the elites in the sushi world, his personality probably also ranks him among the top in terms of relatability and likeability.