The line at Nuart Theatre
I was listening to an interview with Thomas Keller recently, and he mentioned something about repetition. How it's liberating for a chef, how he has cleaned so many fish that now, he no longer has to think about it.
If there's one apparent difference between Keller and Jiro, it's that Jiro doesn't seem to believe you can ever reach perfection. Whether it's a mark of humility or simply impossible standards, one never knows. But it's a true obsession, one that makes you think Jiro could never open Ad Hoc or some to-go sushi stand, let alone expand his existing ten-seater restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.
I walked into Jiro Dreams of Sushi highly skeptical. Foodies get a bad rap for glomming onto highly stylized food imagery and generally preferring style and trend over know-how and cultural context. I can't say that Jiro did away with all of these concerns. Had Jiro not been a Japanese sushi chef (a loaded three-worded phrase), perhaps crowds might not have been so eager to queue. And though Jiro, at least the Jiro portrayed in the film, relays pearls of wisdom in each scene, one wonders which came first: the sushi or the chef.
But let me focus on the good. The film does an excellent job highlighting the consuming obsession that can take over a man's life. Whereas some of us hope that practicing for 10,000 hours might make us experts, Jiro doesn't seem to believe there is any hope of mastery except to sacrifice an entire life. In another context, people might have taken Jiro to a shrink. But instead, we choose to worship.
By the time the film permitted us to watch Jiro serve a complete dinner, even I had fallen into a reverie. Fans of the film version of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus may recall Salieri's monologue (And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, until a clarinet took it over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!). And as a familiar Mozart piano concerto begins to play, I wonder if David Gelb did, too.
There is something satisfying about watching someone else being completely consumed with passion. Few of us are likely to ever allow ourselves to jump that far into the ocean. We have other tethers in life holding us down. We couldn't be so selfish, we say. But we all watch, in awe and all its complex emotions. In one scene, Jiro stares out a train window and avows, perhaps with some backward glance on his childhood, that always doing what you are told does not guarantee success. Yet in another, Jiro says his sons, like him, must do nothing but make sushi for the rest of their lives. The rest of their lives.
Most of us left the theater rushing for the nearest sushi restaurant, armed with new dinner conversation fodder and bemoaning the fact that nothing we eat can measure up to the orchestrated performance of Jiro. But though I walked in a skeptic, I do think the film is better than that. I wonder whether any of us can, in an age of career changes and lifestyle bloggers, commit to a single craft. And if we do, whether we will ever be audacious enough to say we have mastered it.