Monday, March 12, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
seen at the IFC Center, New York, NY

In recent months, I've taken faltering baby steps into the world of the culinary arts. I can't say whether it was any one thing that inspired it; I guess I simply figured cooking was something I oughta have a little bit of skill in. Of course, there were already some things I was (and am) fairly confident I could cook without too much trouble: a hamburger, a grilled cheese sandwich, pancakes. Still, I felt it was time to stretch my boundaries a bit. (Feel free to laugh where appropriate.)

I remembered how my mother would occasionally make Rice-a-Roni when I was a kid, so one day I picked up a box at the supermarket and gave it a shot. Unfortunately, no one told me how difficult it is to actually make rice! (Even if it's only Rice-a-Roni.) I used too much water, it didn't cook long enough, and it was a great big mess in the end. The second time I tried, I overcooked it, and although this made it slightly more edible, it still wasn't something you'd wanna serve to dinner guests. So much for rice.

Pasta was a lot easier. Making spaghetti is easy and fun! Can't believe I never made it on my own sooner. As a kid I always ate that Franco-American canned stuff, but now, it's Ronzoni all the way! Once I mastered that, I tried rigatoni, and that worked out fine as well, but then I got cocky. On the back of the box, there was a recipe for chicken cacciatore. I looked at it and I figured I could try that as well. But see, chicken cacciatore requires a lot of different ingredients, and as I slowly filled my shopping cart with them, I thought to myself two things: (1) This stuff is getting really expensive, and (2) when I inevitably mess up - because there's no way I was gonna get it right the first time - I'm gonna be left with ingredients that I may not use for anything else. They're just gonna sit around the kitchen taking up space, and I'll have wasted money. I concluded that I didn't need to learn how to make chicken cacciatore that badly.

When I was in junior high I had a home ec class where I learned a little bit of cooking. (Do they still have home ec classes?) We had to keep a notebook for writing down recipes. The only thing I remember making in that class was biscuits, and I considered that a major triumph.

I have no ambitions to be a master chef like those on TV. I don't watch any of those cooking competition shows and have no aspirations to enter any of them. Cooking just strikes me as a pleasant and useful thing to be able to do, and I don't care that much if I can't make rice properly as long as I can make a few things.

The one and only time I can remember eating sushi was well over a decade ago. I'm pretty sure I was with Jenny at the time. We were at a sushi joint in the East Village in Manhattan. I knew what it was (I think), and I wasn't all that eager to try it, but I did, and I was less than impressed, to put it mildly. Haven't touched the stuff since, although I have eaten other kinds of Japanese food; the last time being at my sister's wedding. I suppose it's possible that I haven't found the right kind of Japanese food, but honestly, I'm in no great hurry to look. I don't even know how to hold chopsticks right!

Given that, I very likely would not have chosen to see a movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi on my own, but this was a night out with friends: Vija, with whom I haven't gone to a movie in awhile, this young dude named Donald, another fellow artist, and this lady named Alicia, whom I met once before at one of Vija's parties. This outing was her idea; she's trying to make such nights a regular thing. The choice of movie was Don's idea.

So the Jiro in the movie is Jiro Ono, an octogenarian master sushi chef in a tiny shop in Tokyo. Dude's been making sushi most of his life and he's obsessed with making it the best it can possibly be, and as a result he has been feted for it, both at home and abroad. This doc covers his career and what goes into making great sushi. It's well made, even if I didn't necessarily find all the gorgeous close-ups of sushi appetizing.

Also featured in the film are Jiro's two sons, who have followed him into the business. At one point Jiro says that they wanted to go to college, but he coerced them into becoming sushi chefs instead. The oldest son admits that there were other vocations he wanted to pursue as a younger man, but doesn't seem to have any regrets. I have to admit this part troubled me. While there may be more to this aspect of the story that the director chose not to go into, on the face of it, I find the thought that Jiro strong-armed his kids into his profession disturbing. The oldest son also said that when Jiro dies, he'll be expected to be twice as good as his father because Jiro has set such a ridiculously high standard for great sushi. If true, that's insane. There may be cultural mores at play here that I'm unaware of, though; the oldest son also said that in Japanese culture, the eldest son is expected to succeed the father, so it's entirely possible there are nuances that I'm not grokking. I dunno. Still liked the movie, though.

The IFC was packed! There must have been a great deal of anticipation over Jiro; the place was almost sold out and people still kept coming in 5-10 minutes after it started, and afterwards, there was a huge line of ticket holders waiting outside. I suspect part of the reason for the big crowd was that director David Gelb was in attendance. He said his Japanese was minimal, so he worked with several translators in conducting the interviews, and when it came time to edit the footage together, sometimes he'd have to go through hundreds of feet of film thinking Jiro or his sons were saying something important about sushi and it turns out they're only talking about baseball. He said it was worth it, though, if it meant he could find something meaningful to the story he was presenting.

Alicia came late to the theater, and as a result the rest of us didn't catch up to her until afterwards, but afterwards we went out for pizza and talked about the movie and other stuff.


  1. This post is making me hungry for sushi but I had to settle for some grilled Red Snapper tonight. I'm a big fan of fresh fish and all seafood.

    Oh, Congrats on winning my first caption contest with your very funny caption for Dolores! I hope you'll keep your submissions coming in future posts.

  2. First of all, I really enjoy your writing style. It's personal in a way that really draws the reader in. It's fantastic.

    Second- and mostly impertinent to the story- I've always had a dopey Midwestern bias against NYC, but I have to say that you really do a great job of making it sound appealing, even if it's on the periphery of the film review.

    Last, that sounds like a really interesting documentary. Globalization has brought us all very close but there's still such a stark difference in basic things between the US and Japan (and Asia in general, for that matter). Something as simple as preparing food- something that every culture on earth does- really taps into the differences. Maybe I'm over dramatizing it.

  3. Thank you both. Greatly appreciate it.


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