Monday, April 16, 2012

Movie and a Dinner: Jiro and Sushi Azabu

Nigiri at Sushi Azabu
Last weekend I went with John to see “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” expecting an hour and a half of food porn.  We were not disappointed.  In shot after shot delicate slices of toro and kampachi dripped on mounds of perfectly molded rice, soy sauce lightly washed over with the stroke of a brush. 

But this story of a man, possibly the most famous sushi chef in Japan (and the only sushi chef with three Michelin stars) is much more than sushi porn.
It is the human story of a man who humbly strives for perfection in this one task. From Jiro to his sons to the man who sources tuna, a few common themes emerged.

1.     Absolute dedication to craft.  There are several beautiful shots of Jiro’s oldest son sitting outside the dining room in the morning waving sheets of nori over smoking kindling.  The work appears dull and monotonous but he approaches it in the methodical, committed fashion that he will later use to mold rice and slice fish.  In Jiro’s world, even the mundane task of toasting nori requires complete devotion.
2.     Filial responsibility.  Much is made in the story of how the younger of the two sons left Jiro’s several years ago to start his own restaurant knowing in Japan that his older brother would be heir to Jiro’s place.  Much is made of watching the older son now in his mid-fifties still working side by side in obedience to his father, never knowing when his time will come.
3.     Loyalty reigns.  All the suppliers interviewed for the movie make the point they feel honored Jiro chooses to buy from them.  The rice supplier is in return so loyal that he refuses to sell the rice he gives Jiro to anyone else, even when one of the top hotels in Tokyo comes asking.
4.     One can always do better. This was actually a motto of my grandmother’s when I was growing up.  Jiro embodies this ethos.  Even at 85 he still comes to work everyday constantly trying to improve on his life’s work, certain that each day he can make sushi just a little bit better than he did the day before.

Dining Room at Sushi Azabu
Later that week John and I dipped into Tokyo-style restaurant Sushi Azabu tucked away in the basement of Greenwich Grill in Tribeca.  This is no California roll sushi joint. Instead this diminutive den focuses on simple pieces of fish on rice, a few rolls, and a handful of Japanese small plates. 

Memories of Jiro fresh in our minds we went for nigiri- fish on rice plain and simple.  From the mackerel to the tuna, amberjack to salmon, each piece was exquisite.  Even before the fish arrived we marveled at the delicate chopsticks and the mesmerizing colors of the hand-blown glass sake carafe.  Both, we were told, were specially selected and imported from Kyoto craftsmen, an attention to detail and authenticity of which I think even Jiro would approve.

After the movie John commented that “Jiro” should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand business in Japan.  I would add that “Jiro” should be required viewing for anyone who wants to know what it takes to become a true master at a craft- some talent is important, yes, but more than that it is the dogged determination to be better at what you do every day.  To know, as Jiro does, that even when you have already surpassed the competition, the task is never truly complete.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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