Nothing fishy about this documentary

March 2, 2012

“I should have paid more attention when I took Japanese in high school,” David Gelb says with a laugh. “Fortunately, what little I still know I speak with confidence and good pronunciation. The Japanese appreciate the effort.”

Gelb, 28, is sitting backstage during a screening of his film, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” waiting for his chance to have a conversation with the audience. The film, which has been playing the festival circuit, hits theaters March 9.

The film focuses on Jiro Ono, unassuming and routine-driven despite being proclaimed the greatest sushi chef in the world. His Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Ono, has a mere 10 seats – and three Michelin stars. Reservations must be made a year in advance – and the meals start at $400.

“I originally wanted to make a film about three or four of the best sushi chefs in the world,” Gelb says. “But during my research, every chef I talked to said that Jiro was a living legend. When I ate his food, I was floored by how delicious it was. He turned out to be this inspiring, compelling figure. And the film became about more than just sushi: It’s about the value of hard work, family and the quest for perfection.”

Gelb’s film looks at the life of Ono, now 87, who works in his restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district everyday. It charts his early life – when he was essentially sent to work as a child by his parents – through his early years as an apprentice (his own apprentices have to work several years before he even allows them to try cooking eggs). And it looks at his family: specifically, his older son, Yoshikazu, now in his 50s, who has worked for his father since he was 19 and will eventually replace him.

Gelb got to Jiro through Masuhiro Yamamoto, noted Japanese food critic who was a friend of Gelb’s father (Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera): “Yamamoto convinced Jiro that I didn’t have an agenda,” Gelb says. “Jiro had gotten frustrated over the years at journalists who already knew what story they wanted before they even met him. But I wasn’t interested in that.”

Working with a small crew, Gelb spent two separate months during 2010 filming Jiro, his sons and his restaurant (though he was not allowed to film during meal service, given the price of the food and the long wait patrons had endured for a reservation). Between the shoots, he worked with his editor to start assembling the film, then went back to shoot what he felt was missing.

The high price of a meal at Jiro’s, Gelb says, comes from the fact that “you’re paying for the best fish in the world, prepared by a man who has spent his life perfecting the way to prepare rice and fish. It’s the work of a true master. It’s absolutely the best fish; the overhead to serve a piece of toro could be up to $100. Plus real estate prices have skyrocketed in Tokyo. His restaurant is in the basement of an office building, near the subway entrance. But, per-foot, it’s the most expensive real estate in the world.”

Gelb was introduced to sushi by his parents, who took him to Japan as a child: “My parents would feed me cucumber rolls as a kid,” he says. “I’ve loved Japanese culture and food ever since.

“I look at people like Anthony Bourdain, who travel around the world eating the most outrageous food. I thought it might be interesting to make my job eating the best sushi in the world. And, honestly, I hadn’t seen a film about sushi. There had been nothing that told the human story behind sushi in a cinematic style.”

As he filmed Jiro at work, Gelb gained a new appreciation for both the difficulty and simplicity of the work he did.

“One of the biggest surprises to me was the importance that’s put on the rice,” he says. “The fish and the rice are of equal importance. After you eat Jiro’s food, you immediately understand why. When the rice is done correctly, it brings out the flavor of the fish. That’s one of the reasons it’s so delicious. The rice is supposed to be body temperature. The vinegar and the rice and the fish work together. It’s a combination of elements that create a balance and you taste the purity of the fish.

“There’s a space between the flavor when the fish and the rice’s flavors are combined. The essence of sushi is finding that balance between the fish and the rice.”

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