Last night, I was feeling that way, so I decided to re-watch an old favourite, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I reflected on this through a Q&A, because I’m a dork.
What do you mean “that way”?
I was tired, I was grasping a bit with my work, I needed time in my head to think. To settle myself in moments like these, I look to semi-mindless activities, like watching a beautiful documentary showcasing somebody’s unrelenting passion.
Sorry to hear you were feeling that way. It’s easy to share some banal platitude like, “Life, it’s tricky. It goes well sometimes, not so well other times.” But of course that doesn’t always sink in. I’m glad you turned to something instead of stewing. What’s the movie about?
Thanks for saying so. The movie profiles Jiro Ono. He’s 85 and he runs one of the top sushi restaurants in the world. He’s indisputably a master sushi chef.
What details about Jiro stick out to you?
He is extremely dedicated to his work. Perhaps too dedicated (see the next bit, on family). He reminds me what ceaseless internal ambition looks like—to be driven always to improve versus past versions of yourself.
Also his family. His sons are very present—the eldest, 50, has worked with Jiro since he was 19, and will inherit the restaurant once Jiro retires or passes away; the younger son, similarly, worked with Jiro since he graduated highschool, but Jiro pushed him to open his own (nearly identical) restaurant, since he would never inherit.
So his sons are very present. But his wife is nearly absent. The restaurant is very much a boys’ business—everyone behind the counter is male. And throughout Jiro’s life, it seems he spent little time at home. I thought his wife had perhaps passed away or that they had divorced, but he makes a reference to her when describing his retirement—her near total absence from the film was interesting.
What about the restaurant? Does anything stick out about it?
It only seats ten. Those ten are carefully assigned seating by Jiro and his staff. It’s in a subway station. You need to book more than a month in advance.
So the restaurant is interesting in terms of place and logistics. But its staff are also fascinating. You can apprentice with Jiro for free—if he has a spot, he’ll take you. But it’s not easy. You first just squeeze a burning hot towel until your hands are desensitized enough to handle it. Then you can actually touch the fish. You move through various apprentice-y tasks (e.g. massaging octopus for fifty minutes) over the years, gradually learning how to make different types of sushi. Some types of sushi (like the egg sushi) you don’t start learning until you’ve been there for ten years.
So is Jiro a role model?
For me? Yes—ish. There are elements of Jiro’s story that I can take and appreciate. His devotion to mastery is impressive. His focus on craft—on doing things well, consistently, and striving always to do better—reminds me of the potential of dedication. But I think his level of fanatical devotion risks unbalancing your life—I, at least, strive for more of a mix.
In one respect, though, he reminds me of another of my role models: my nonna. (My Italian grandmother.) At one point, someone notes that Jiro is “always looking ahead”, looking for ways to improve his skills and the quality of his food. Similarly, my nonna, in her seventies, continues to improve, and to think about what could make her food better. She applies this to other areas of her life, too—this I find most inspiring, the application of Jiro’s approach beyond one focus.
And, for the record, some quotations I jotted down while watching:
- “It’s just about making an effort and doing the same thing every day.” (elder son)
- Even for masters, “there’s always room for improvement.”
- “But just when you think you know it all, you realize you’re just fooling yourself.”
- “[Jiro] gives me advice. But there is much you can’t learn from words. So I keep practicing.”
- “In order to make delicious food, one must eat delicious food.” (This rings true. Or, at least, this emphasis on deliciousness does. As I watched, I ate some speck—smoked prosciutto—and its deliciousness hit me full force. Yum.)
- “Each ingredient has an ideal moment of deliciousness.”
- “Always doing what you’re told doesn’t mean you’ll succeed at life.”