Our kids have acquired our travel genes so when we get together I often ask them where they are planning to go next. Tommy told me a few days ago he would like to go to Japan. For all the technology, he said. How about the sushi master I told you about, knowing he loves sushi. From the Netflix documentary? Yes, I said. Then I proceeded to show him sections on Japan from Silicon Collar. He read them and said “Guess I will also have to go to Kanazawa to see all the artisans you wrote about”.
Yes, the Shokunin, which loosely translates to master craftsman.
The conversation reminded me I had not watched the Jiro Ono documentary in full. So I did. I am not a big raw fish fan, but the film is a religious experience.
When the film was made in 2011 (trailer below – full version available on Netflix or on DVD on Amazon) Jiro was 85, and had been perfecting his craft for 75 years. His small, non-descript place near a subway station which only seats 10 bar-style, Sukiyabashi Jiro has earned 3 Michelin stars. You have to make reservations for lunch or dinner weeks in advance, and expect to spend at least $ 300 each.
Forget all the previous sushi you have eaten. His is a fixed, omakase tasting menu of 20 pieces – in the film they show pieces with three types of tuna with varying degrees of fat. Each day, the other pieces vary depending on the best catch they get at the market (with his reputation he gets first dibs) – could be octopus massaged and tenderized for nearly an hour, could be salmon roe. His pieces are brushed with "nikiri" soy sauce and you don’t need to dip it in sauce or add wasabi. In fact that would ruin the taste. The pieces as served have the right blend of fish, fermented rice and sauce. Chopsticks are optional - his website shows the right way to use your fingers to pick the pieces. They serve one piece at a time, not as a plateful. They are best eaten as soon as served. Another reason not be late for your reservation or socialize too much. He discourages photography for the same reason. Eat it as soon as it served. Eat it as one bite. Sushi used to be street food in Japan. This invokes that Edo period tradition. Your meal could be done in 20 minutes. No tempura or soba served here. Only sushi. Similarly no sake. He recommends green tea or plain water. Use the Shoga (pickled ginger) to cleanse your palate between servings. Avoid heavy perfume – will ruin your experience and that of other patrons. There are other rules and rituals. Like I said it is a religious experience.
But even more fascinating are the life lessons from his journey and those of his sons and other apprentices. There is something satisfying to hear him talk about the joy he gets from his craft. From his humility that he can still improve after 75 years and even with the recognition that he is already elite. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the oldest Michelin 3 Star chef. Anthony Bourdain raves about him. President Obama dined with Prime Minister Abe at his restaurant. Cannot imagine what the security preparations were for this place located in a basement.
But watch the movie as you contemplate the future of jobs and training workers. They talk about years of experience before they are allowed to touch certain fish or cook eggs. It is about a relentless, long-term pursuit of excellence. It will reassure you humans with their ingenuity and dexterity will always be valued even as machines get smarter.
Show it to your young kids and to young workers (unless raw meat turns them off). We can all benefit from this role model of work ethic. And the spirit of this Shokunin.