Edible Craftsmanship: Jiro Ono and His Quest for Sushi Perfection
[alert type=”info”]The sixth subject of our new series on craftsmanship hails from the Land of the Rising Sun: Japan. 85-year old sushi master Sukiyabashi Jiro takes dedication to a whole new level. He is the first sushi chef in the world to earn 3 Michelin Stars, is recognized as one of the world’s greatest chefs, and is the subject of a recent documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.[/alert]
“Ultimate simplicity leads to purity” – Sukiyabashi Jiro
Sushi Beyond Compare
As dishes go, sushi is one of the simplest in terms of ingredients. Rice, protein, and a little vinegar are the three primary components. And yet Sukiyabashi Jiro’s sushi baffles high-profile chefs with the complexity and depth of flavor in these small, finger-sized morsels of food.
But it is this simplicity that is the key to excellent sushi. According to Jiro, too many ingredients muddle the flavors and distract from the tasting experience. One can compare this to how too many uncoordinated instruments just generate noise instead of a symphony. Jiro’s simple dishes are specifically planned in order to let the quality of the ingredients and their preparation shine through.
And in sushi, it’s all about the preparation. I personally love sushi and have written about the top 10 sushi restaurant logos in the past. I have also designed a powerful fish mascot character for a Sushi Restaurant. I am meticulous in terms of preparation for my design projects and ensure all the designers at Logo Design Works take time for preparation.
Rice is washed no less than eight times to wash out the starchiness, and cooked in a specially prepared mixture of water and vinegar for a sweet and tangy flavor. Certain kinds of fish are marinated for at least six hours to give the meat enough time to fully absorb the marinade and retain its intensity. Tuna is aged for three days at a time to soften the meat enough that it melts in the mouth. Octopus is massaged for a full hour before it is deemed soft enough to serve to the customer. All these things and more are just one aspect of the patience, perseverance, and dedication that Jiro and his staff go through for the sake of a single meal.
“You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.” – Sukiyabashi Jiro
A Lifelong Profession
Jiro has been making sushi for over 40 years. Even now, at the ripe old age of 85, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’s had many chances to retire and leave the restaurant to his son, Yoshikazu, but loves working too much to stay home. In fact, in decades, he has never taken a vacation except for mandatory government holidays.
Jiro is constantly practicing his skills, doing the same thing over and over in a never-ending quest for self-improvement. In his own words, he is always reaching for the top, but doesn’t know where the top is.
This kind of single-minded dedication shows in the quality of his work. As mentioned before, his restaurant has been awarded 3 Michelin Stars and is lauded by food critics and chefs all over the world. Reservations need to be booked a year in advance, and a single meal at his restaurant costs upwards of $400.
Passing the Torch
As hard as Jiro pushes himself, he pushes his staff just as hard. Apprentices can perform a single task for years until Jiro deems they’ve perfected it enough that they can move on to the next. One apprentice had been cooking tamago, a special, sweet omelette eaten in soft yet firm thumb-sized rectangular servings, for four months before he could produce one that passed Jiro’s standards.
One interesting aspect of the apprentice’s training is the way they eat. Jiro and the senior staff always cook excellent meals for the apprentices in order to train their palates. Jiro believes that a chef should develop his skills at tasting in addition to his skills at cooking. After all, if you don’t know what good food tastes like, how can you expect to make it for the customer?
Jiro’s sons are under even more pressure to perform—especially Yoshikazu, the eldest. In Japan, the eldest sons are obliged to carry on the family business, and that means keeping the same quality of sushi that Jiro is famous for. These are very large shoes for Yoshikazu, who is now in his fifties, to fill. He is constantly living under his father’s shadow, and after Jiro’s death, that shadow may loom even larger.
But perhaps Yoshizaku will be up to the task. On the fateful year where Michelin reviewed Jiro’s restaurant and easily earned the three stars, Jiro had not served sushi once. It was Yoshizaku who had served them, not his father.