MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
President Obama began his trip to Japan with some sushi diplomacy. He had dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a revered and tiny temple of sushi in Tokyo: a subterranean restaurant with just 10 seats at the counter. He emerged with a thumbs-up review.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's some good sushi right there. It was terrific. Thank you so much.
BLOCK: That terrific sushi was carefully crafted by the 89-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. He was the subject of the recent documentary "Jiro Dream's of Sushi," from filmmaker David Gelb, who joins me now. Welcome to the program.
DAVID GELB: Hi. Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And David, why don't you describe a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro for those people who are lucky enough to get one of those prized 10 seats at the counter?
GELB: Well, yeah, a reservation is tough to come by because of how small, you know, the seating is. It's in the basement of an office building in Tokyo connected to a subway station so it's in the most unassuming of locations. But his sushi is the best in the world. For someone who has a taste for true, pure Japanese sushi, I mean it's a place that you kind of have to go to.
BLOCK: And when you say pure Japanese sushi, that's all he serves, right? There's nothing else. No appetizers, no other dishes, only sushi.
GELB: That's right. It's purely his style of sushi, which is classic Tokyo style, just fish and rice and seasoning, maybe a soy sauce or a nikiri, which is a kind of sweetened soy sauce that he would use to sweeten the fish.
BLOCK: It's one menu, right? So how many pieces would you be getting?
GELB: It's about 20 pieces.
BLOCK: Twenty pieces. And it costs?
Well, it can cost between $300 and $400 a person, but, you know, his margin is not huge because he's sourcing the absolute best of every ingredient.
And we hear Jiro Ono in your movie talking about his obsession with sushi.
JIRO ONO: (Speaking foreign language)
BLOCK: And he tells you, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, in dreams I would have visions of sushi, which brings you the title of your movie. What is it about it that intrigues him so much and that makes him ecstatic as he tells you?
GELB: Well, I think he's more than just a chef. He's a true artist. I believe that he's a genius. And if you see the passion that he has - for example, massaging the octopus every day for an hour just to bring out the flavor of the octopus' diet. You know, the octopus that he gets, they're trolling the seafloor eating clams and other delicious shellfish.
And so he's getting the octopus that has the best diet and then he massages it or has his apprentice massage it because he's getting, you know, on in the years to bring out the best flavor. So I think that his philosophy of work, where it's about finding a routine and that, mastering that craft, it applies to any kind of art.
BLOCK: Is it an intimidating thing to eat at his counter when he's standing very close, he's inches away watching you very intently, eat what he's prepared?
GELB: I mean, absolutely, you know. The first time that I ate there, I was very nervous because, I mean, the man is a living legend, and he watches, and he observes the customers very closely. And so it can be a nerve-wracking experience. But the sushi is so good that the tension melts away and you find yourself - you know, the restaurant is very quiet.
He has a fountain, you know. There's no music or anything. There's just the sound of a fountain, and you kind of go into this sushi trance, and it's quite an amazing experience.
BLOCK: Well, David Gelb, thanks for talking to us.
GELB: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
BLOCK: David Gelb's film about the sushi restaurant where President Obama dined in Tokyo tonight is "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."