Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.
Underneath the perpeptual motion of Tokyo, in a non-descript subway station, you find a a sukiyabaki, a Japanese restaurant where they specialize in making sushi. To be more specific, in this particular sukiyabaki, they make nigiri, hand made sushi prepared without the use of bamboo rolling mats. However, this small space underneath the city is no ordinary sukiyabaki. It has three Michelin stars and has served the likes of American President Barack Obama and chef and professional tourist Anthony Bourdain. This is the Holy Grail of sushi enthusiasts all over the world, the Madison Square Garden of fish and rice. This is Sukiyabaki Jiro, widely considered as the greatest sushi restaurant in the whole world.
Inside you will find a spartan affair, simple and almost utilitarian. Behind the immaculately clean counter, so clean that the wood has an otherworldly sheen, is Jiro Ono, the godfather of sushi, a nonagenarian in a simple yukata, the years evident behind his wire frame glasses. Despite his frail appearance, there is something intimidating about him, as if you are meeting a saint for the first time. His eyes meet yours, and a small part of yourself feels as if he is dissecting you like the fish he serves.
You sit down and you lightly dab your hands on the hot towel that was presented before you. Like any good diner, you research beforehand and you do not ask for chopsticks. You will eat with your hands, an unspoken agreement between you and the master – from his hands to yours.
Jiro begins. He takes rice from a wooden bin and a piece of fish. He presses both in the palm of his hand, cradling them like one would something precious and then delicately brushes each piece with a light dusting of soy sauce. He puts the finished sushi piece in the plate provided for you and you just have to stare at it to appreciate the thing of beauty in front of you. It shimmers slightly, the simplicity of the red flesh on top of white rice looks like something straight of the picture books.
Then you take the sushi and take a bite. Unlike other food experiences, the flavors do not explode in your mouth. Instead you are treated to a story in your tongue. The fragrant acidity of the rice segues to the delicacy of the raw fish, the interplay of the sea and the plains forming a marriage on your palate. The rice breaks apart in your mouth, like a stage curtain suddenly opening and revealing the main players of some culinary play. It is like tasting emotions so subtle you barely feel them, but when you do, you suddenly see the power and brilliance and it takes a hold of you. You are overwhelmed.
Then before you can recover, Jiro puts another piece of sushi in front of you. Then another. Different kinds of tuna, otoro and chu-toro. Shad. Octopus. Sea urchin. Clams. You are sent into wave after of wave of emotion, the subtlety of each flavor taking an almost musical quality. Then the denouement, two small cakes of soft delicate egg sashimi, tamago. It all takes less than an hour. Nearly thirty minutes of one of the most satisfying experienceas on earth.
Making sushi looks simple enough. A piece of meat and rice is a template that is followed by most of Asia. Sushi initially started as a way of preserving fish, then as a snack food of the masses. Then after Hollywood picked it up, it gained a worldwide following. Of course, like in all things, the Japanese approached the making of sushi with a level of artisanship that can only be described as obsessive. In the hands of someone like Jiro Ono, sushi becomes an artform.
His approach is simple. He simply wants to make his next performance better than the last. No magic sauce, no mysterious cooking technique, just a gradual accretion of perfection through the years, an endless repetition of technique refined year after year, day after day. Of course, like any establishment, getting the finest ingredients counts for a lot. Sukiyabaki Jiro sources their ingredients from very specific sellers in the marketplace. Each vendor has a claim to fame. They buy only prawns from someone called the God of prawns. Their eel comes from a person described as the son of the king of eels, a veritable eel prince. Their rice is a special order that is sold only to them, the rice seller believing that only Jiro can do it justice.
Already well known in the food world, Jiro Ono became a worldwide sensation after being the subject of David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The documentary delves in the life of Jiro, his relationship with his sons and apprentices and his journey to become the best in the world. One of his former students remarks that if Jiro Ono still had any regrets he would have to be crazy. Yet if you look at Jiro, there is a certain wistfulness about him, as if he still searches for something. Regret would not be an appropriate term for it. Instead, it has a daydream quality, one that imagines the creation of the perfect piece of sushi. The search for perfection is all consuming.
This is my first entry for the quotes challenge. Thank you Jacqueline for nominating me.