New York born filmmaker David Gelb has made a splash with his debut feature documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which chronicles the life and methods of acclaimed sushi chef Jiro Ono who at 85 years of age still stands tall as the master of his craft with his restaurant awarded 3 Michelin Stars.
Winning rave reviews and enticing taste buds around the world, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about to be released in Australian cinemas where it will no doubt go down a treat.
David Gelb spoke to Matt’s Movie Reviews about making Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
When did you first hear about Jiro Ono and his restaurant?
I heard about Jiro from other sushi chefs I was interviewing for the project. I wanted to make a film about sushi and I thought I would film a few different sushi chefs, but everybody pointed me into the direction of Jiro. They kind of framed him as this living legend of sushi so I had to see him myself, and when I ate (at his restaurant) I was amazed at how good the sushi was, how delicious the rice was specifically, and also I was fascinated by Jiro himself.
I realised I could make a movie about more than just sushi. If it’s from Jiro’s perspective it would be a film about how it works and about a quest for perfection, and about a family story. So that was kind of an eureka moment for me when I was realised it could be so much more than about sushi.
It is clearly evident that loyalty and trust are important to Jiro and it’s something he doesn’t give away easily. What did it take for Jiro to trust you to document his work and life?
Well I owe a great deal to the food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto who appears in the film as the narrator of sorts. He has a long relationship with Jiro and I met him through an associate of my father, and we got on very well and he liked my perspective that I wanted to make a film about the purity and the art form of sushi and about Jiro’s life. He managed to convince Jiro to meet with me and to be a part of the movie.
"I realised I could make a movie about more than just sushi...it would be a film about a quest for perfection and about a family story." - David Gelb
The artistry that Jiro puts into his food was something that stuck with me. Did that also make an impression on you?
Oh, absolutely! Jiro’s philosophy of sushi and hard work applies to everything in any vocation. There is always room for improvement. In order to live the kind of life as Jiro’s who really loves to perfect and loves what he does, you just have to kind of throw yourself into it regardless of the challenges.
My editor and I learned a great deal from his kind of philosophy of repetition and doing it over and over again until it is right…to very frankly review our own work, we became our own fiercest critics because Jiro was his own fiercest critic.
So in order to do better work we realised you just need to look very honestly at the work you are doing. Not think about how long it took to put a certain scene together. You have to ask is this useful? Is this entertaining? Is this worthy of an audience? And sometimes the answer would be “no”, so it’s just the process of repetition and everything Jiro says in the film we applied to the craft of the film as best we could.
After tasting Jiro’s sushi, has it been possible to enjoy another chef’s take on the dish?
Oh, it is. But I’ve become more discriminating to sushi eating. With sushi it is really all about the rice and balance between the rice and the fish. So many chefs in the west…I’ve never been to Australia unfortunately, but I can speak for the United States… a lot of the sushi chefs simply do not have the mastery of the rice, or even the intention to make the rice as delicious as it should be.
The rice is often overlooked and the sushi that is being presented is being slobbered with all types of sauces. It’s quite a departure from the sushi which Jiro has focused on. But there are many chefs who are influenced by Jiro and who are searching for this kind of purity, and finding the balance between fish and rice, serving the rice warm and using the rice to elevate the fish, so I go to those restaurants.
I eat sushi a lot less often then I used to, but when I do go to eat sushi I always go to a very good restaurant.
I am not in any way a sushi man, but the film made me want to go to the nearest sushi bar and order something. What is it about this food that you love so much that you would base a whole documentary on it and a person who mastered the craft of making it?
First time I ever went to Japan I was two years old and I went on a trip with my parents. I just loved the cucumber roles. They were feeding me cucumber roles in a stroller. Then my father worked for Sony music, so he had to go to Japan somewhat frequently. So I would tag along with him on these trips and I just fell in love with Japanese culture.
I loved the kind of dedication of the craftsmanship in Japan have to mastering something that seems very simple. It seems making sushi is very easy because it’s a combination of fish and rice. Maybe it’s a minute to learn but it’s a lifetime to master, to use that cliché.
I just find it so fascinating that something that seems so simple actually is incredibly complex. With Jiro’s sushi, he has been cultivating these techniques for decades and as you cans see in the film an incredible amount of work goes into preparing the fish, to reach the level of deliciousness that is ready to serve to a customer from Jiro’s point of view.
So I just always loved sushi chefs and the way they have the relationship with the customer. The way that Jiro creates a constant meal for each customer that is in front of him, I just find that fascinating and also just incredibly pleasurable to eat.
"Jiro’s work is incredibly inspiring...it’s just about keep on working on it until it’s right. Everything that Jiro would kind of advocate in the film we were applying to ourselves." - David Gelb
Jiro’s approach to his work…you talked about his repetition, his perfectionist nature and you see that in the film. Does the way he approaches his craft inspire the way you approached your craft?
Absolutely! Jiro’s work is incredibly inspiring to myself and the editor (Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer). It’s just about keep on working on it until it’s right. We tested the film in front of audiences and we took the feedback very seriously, and we were also our own harshest critics.
Everything that Jiro would kind of advocate in the film we were applying to ourselves. In every element of the craft in the movie we tried to elevate as much as possible, from the music to the photography on. In the editorial as well we felt inspired by Jiro and we were dedicated to making something worthy of him.
You spoke about the father/son family dynamic in the documentary. It was interesting that it was revealed that it was Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu that secured that 3 Michelin star rating with his rating. When Yoshikazu does eventually take the reins will he be able to live up to the legacy his father created?
Absolutely. Yoshikazu is dedicated to the craft, and both he and his younger brother Takashi are incredibly qualified to meet the standards of Jiro’s legacy. The fact that Yoshikazu served the Michelin inspectors, that’s a testament to Jiro’s skills as a teacher and also the fact that these techniques, these ways to make fish that Jiro has perfected for decades, are true. So I think Yoshikazu will be fantastic and he is fantastic.
Sticking with that family theme, an element that I thought was missing from the film was Jiro’s relationship with his wife. Was there a specific reason she was not a part of this exploration?
Well, I would have loved to have had her in the film but unfortunately she declined to be interviewed. She’s a bit camera shy. So we respectfully allowed her to have her privacy. You know, there were very few conditions that Jiro had imposed on us. He was incredibly open about everything , but in Japan there is a sharp division between the workplace and the home, especially amongst people of Jiro’s generation. So they allowed me to film anything that I wanted, ask anything that I wanted in the restaurant, but I was careful not to cross the line and to push on things that they wanted to keep private.