The Ginza district of Chuo, Tokyo, is widely recognized as one of the world’s most luxurious shopping centers. Amid the numerous flagship stores, including Chanel, Dior, and Sony, lies a dull, tan-colored office building. Tucked away in its basement, just a glass door away from a subway platform, is Sukiyabashi Jiro—a tiny sushi bar with only 10 seats and no bathroom on the premises, but it’s enough to have earned three Michelin stars. Behind the sushi bar, a bald, bespectacled, 86-year-old chef meticulously sculpts his miniature gems like a culinary Michelangelo. His name is Jiro Ono, and he is, according to acclaimed chefs Joël Robuchon, Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, and countless others, hailed as the greatest sushi chef in the world.
“I was blown away by the quality of the sushi, especially the rice,” said Ripert, who runs the acclaimed French restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City, at a recent Japan Society event. “I had never tasted rice like that. It was like this cloud that explodes in your mouth.”
Jiro Ono is also now the subject of the critically acclaimed mouthwatering documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Directed by 28-year-old filmmaker David Gelb, the film profiles the man many consider to be the world’s greatest sushi chef and his relationships with his two sons—Yoshikazu and Takashi—with the former serving as his father’s long-suffering second in command who will one day take the reins at the Sukiyabashi Jiro.
Gelb, who has been visiting Japan since he was 2 years old, got the idea for a sushi documentary while watching BBC’s Planet Earth. “Why doesn’t anybody shoot sushi like this?” he asked himself. He was then put in touch with renowned food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who is a friend of Gelb’s father, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Yamamoto took Gelb on a tour of Japanese sushi restaurants, but when they dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the young filmmaker knew he’d found his subject.
“I was blown away by how interesting Jiro was and how his eldest son, Yoshikazu, was still working alongside him at the sushi bar,” Gelb told The Daily Beast.
The story of Ono’s rise to the top of his profession is as compelling as his sushi is delicious. His father, an alcoholic who worked in a military factory, abandoned the family when Ono was just 7 years old. He left home at age 9 and was told, “You have no home to come back to.” He started apprenticing at a sushi shop and has been working the same job for 76 years. Ono also currently holds the distinction of being the Guinness World Record holder for the world’s oldest three–Michelin star chef.
Despite his advancing age, Ono still takes the subway to work every morning and oversees nearly every facet of his restaurant—from planning the seating arrangements to the menu. According to Ono’s 51-year-old son and heir apparent, Yoshikazu, the chef takes off only for national holidays or funerals. But Ono has cut back in recent years: at age 70, he had a heart attack and decided to give up not only smoking, but also purchasing high-quality fish every morning at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo—“the top seafood market in the world,” according to acclaimed sushi chef Masaharu Morimoto. Yoshikazu now makes the daily bicycle ride. In addition to the best fish, Ono also has a special rice dealer who only sells his best grains to him because he believes he’s the only chef in the world who can properly cook his rice (the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, a five-star hotel, tried to retain his services, but he turned them down flat).
Only six people work at Ono’s establishment: Yoshikazu; another shokunin, or sushi chef; three apprentices, who must train with Ono for a decade to attain the status of shokunin; a woman who handles all the accounting and the cash register (the place takes cash only); and a woman who cleans the restaurant.
“You must dedicate your life to mastering this skill,” Ono says in the film. “This is the key to success.”
To dine the 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro, one must make a reservation up to a year in advance and shell out 30,000 yen ($368) for a fixed menu of 20 pieces of sushi—the restaurant serves only sushi. Diners talk of being intimidated by Ono, who stands behind the sushi bar with a stony-faced look while customers indulge in his minimalist creations. He ages his tuna for up to 10 days, and apprentices massage the octopus’s by hand for 50 minutes before preparing it. The octogenarian is such a perfectionist that he’ll even make his sushi different sizes for different customers, so that an entire party finishes the food at the same time.
“Because of the air filtration in the basement, the air is the exact same every single day,” said Gelb. “If everything’s constant, then if something tastes different in the food, he’s able to identity that changing factor.” Gelb pauses, and grins. “That’s how serious he is.”
“He is a purist,” says chef Masato Shimizu, who runs the well-regarded sushi restaurant 15 East in New York City.
In addition to Ono’s modus operandi, as well as his relationship with Yoshikazu, who struggles to make his own mark and rise from behind his father’s enormous shadow, Gelb’s film also examines the worldwide sushi craze, which seemed to begin in the mid-1980s with the invention of the California roll—taking sushi from Japan to the U.S. and then Europe. According to Ono and Yoshikazu, since sushi has become so immensely popular, it’s become more difficult to create high-quality product due to a dearth in high-quality fish from overfishing (blue-fin tuna, in particular, has become an endangered species in certain parts of the world).
But the main attraction of Gelb’s film is the awe-inspiring montages of food preparation, set to orchestral scores by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Philip Glass (Gelb’s father does run the Metropolitan Orchestra, after all). Tuna is slowly cut in thin morsels; the world’s finest rice is cooked and shaken with care; and nigiri sushi is brushed with soy sauce in mouthwatering close-up. Yamamoto describes the dining experience at Jiro’s as “a sushi concerto,” and this is indeed food porn of the highest order. You will not walk, but run to the nearest sushi restaurant after seeing Gelb’s film.
“What defines deliciousness?” asks Ono in the movie’s opening line.
To find out, you may need to pay a visit to a tiny, hidden sushi bar in downtown Tokyo. But be sure to bring your wallet—and a heavy appetite.