Cameras Follow World's Greatest Sushi Chef

Jiro Ono, 85, owns a small sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. The 10 seats at the sushi bar require reservations months in advance. In the new movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, director David Gelb explores the chef's relationships with his sons and the art of sushi-making. Gelb talks to Renee Montagne about Ono's story.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Jiro Ono has given more than 75 years of his life to one job. The sushi chef started learning his trade at the age of nine. His father had abandoned the family, forcing Jiro's impoverished mother to send him out to a Dickensian world of kitchen work. Today, his sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is considered the best in the world. So good, it's earned the top Michelin rating of three stars, even though it's located deep underground next to a Tokyo subway platform.

Jiro presides from behind the counter, a formidable focused presence, his hands molding the soft rice beneath delicate slices of fish.

A new documentary, "Jiro Streams of Sushi," follows the 86 year old's almost obsessive search for the perfect sushi. The film's director David Gelb joined us here at NPR West.

Welcome.

DAVID GELB: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How did you get Jiro to let you follow him?

GELB: Well, I owe a great deal to the food writer, Masuhiro Yamamoto. I like to refer to him as a as a sushi poet. He was the judge of "Iron Chef" in Japan. He convinced Jiro that I would do a fair telling of his story.

MONTAGNE: One thing about this film that brings you in is when one first meets Jiro, you know he's amazing at what he does, you know he's the best sushi chef in the world, and yet he seems quite fierce. And bit by bit, you see this other side - he'll break out into a little smile. And that, maybe in a way, that seems more of a gift.

GELB: Absolutely. When I first ate at the restaurant, I was very, very nervous 'cause I heard, you know, what is serious man he is and kind of how stoic he is, and he doesn't talk to the customers, and the meal last 30 minutes and cost $350. And, you know, you're out of there as soon as you finish, basically.

But as soon as he finished service and the customers leave the restaurant and he becomes, you know, a very personable, kind gentleman. And what I realized is that it's not that he's mean, he's just concentrating, using his full attention on the task at hand, which is making sushi. He's just focus on making every single piece of sushi the best sushi of his life.

MONTAGNE: You know, does it matter that it's such a small place? His entire restaurant consists of a bar with 10 stools?

GELB: Yeah, there're 10 seats in the bar. They do maybe one turnover for lunch and one turnover for dinner - that's all the people that he can serve to his standard, 'cause that's all the fish that exists in the fish market that will satisfy him.

MONTAGNE: There are plenty of examples, in this film, of the lengths that Jiro goes to, to make the ultimate sushi. One of them, which he doesn't do himself: massaging the octopus. What's that?

GELB: Octopi are often tragically under massaged in sushi restaurants.

MONTAGNE: So then you end up chewing on them in a way.

GELB: Yeah. Well, octopus, you know, I think a lot of people that eat octopus in a normal sushi restaurant - especially Americans, you know, octopus isn't a popular because it's known as being chewy and it has sort of suction cups. And, you know, a lot of people think it's a piece of rubber. And Jiro laments that, as well. 'Cause he thinks that octopus often has no flavor. And so, he developed a way to make octopus delicious.

It needs to be massaged for an hour every day, in order to both tenderize it and also to bring out the flavors of what the octopus has been eating. The octopus that they get has a fantastic diet of clams and shellfish. And so, by massaging the octopus they're unlocking all the flavors that's inside of it. And that's one of the reasons the Jiro's octopus is so delicious.

MONTAGNE: Your film takes us to this fish market. Let's take a listen to the sound of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI")

MONTAGNE: Describe for us what we're hearing.

GELB: This is the tuna auction and the procedure has been unchanged for over a hundred years. There's no digital record-keeping of any kind. It's all, you know, completely analog. The auctioneers are ringing bells to indicate where the auctions are taking place on the floor, 'cause there may be a few auctions happening at the same time for different fish. And the auctioneers are sort of like, yelling, like in a Sotheby's essentially, and it kind of takes on a very musical quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI")

MONTAGNE: Almost like jazz, whereas the rest of the film, there is a score that is classical music. And it seems as if you structured the story as a kind of symphony.

GELB: Certainly, and this is something that Yamamoto, our food writer and narrator, he conveyed this to me when I first started talking to him about Jiro and about sushi. Is that Jiro's sushi - his sushi courses like a concerto; it's like a piece of music. And it has movements. And it has, you know, kind of hills and valleys - all very delicious, but the hills and valleys meaning the contrasts and the flavors between the different sushi.

MONTAGNE: Throughout the film we see sushi; sushi that's extremely elegant and an exquisite to look at. Even without being able to taste it, it does give one the impression that it's quite sublime.

GELB: So, they're actually quite easy to shoot because you just have to point the camera from a compelling perspective and the sushi does the work itself. First of all, just Jiro's sushi, they look like jewels. You know, they are incredibly beautiful. When he places a piece of sushi on the plate, it settles into place. And Yamamoto, the food writer, describes it as: The soft landing.

And it's because Jiro packs the rice firmly so it retains its shape, but also very lightly so that there's air that moves within the rice.

MONTAGNE: How does it taste?

GELB: The rice is warm and fluffy, but each grain retains its perfect shape, and it's just slightly out al dente at the same time. And when you put a piece of sushi in your mouth, the rice kind of poofs. Eric Ripert, the French Chef, described it where the rice just poofs and it just the flavors combine with the fish. And what's happening is the rice is elevating the fish. And when you master that balance, like Jiro has, the only way to describe the sensation of eating it is umami - and that's kind of the perfect balance where you just taste the true essence of the fish.

MONTAGNE: And umami, as communicated by his oldest son, as the experience of, ahh.

GELB: Of ahh, exactly. Umami is just the feeling of satisfaction while eating. You just - are just moved by what you eat. After having eaten there and understanding all the work that goes into it, eating a piece of sushi from Jiro is really quite emotional, especially when you know the vast labors that have gone into creating that single bite.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

GELB: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: David Gelb is the director and producer of the new documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."

And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.

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