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Should one gently massage an octopus for 30 minutes or 45 minutes?
on 2 May 2012
Jiro Ono is 85 years old. He owns a small sushi restaurant in downtown Tokyo. It's located in the lower level of a sleek office building next to a subway station. The restaurant seats only 10 customers at a counter. There are no tables and no waiting area. Mr. Ono does not serve appetizers, deserts or liquor. His customers are expected to be on time, not early and certainly not late. They are warmly greeted and seated at the counter. Typically each receives 20 pieces of sushi, each different, one piece at a time. A customer does not say what he'd like. Mr. Ono will decide. Mr. Ono is the subject of the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Mr. Ono watches his customers. Are they left or right handed? That determines where at the counter they'll be seated. Male or female? Females receive slightly smaller pieces of sushi. Customers in a group should end their meal at the same time, and female mouths are usually a bit smaller. How does the customer react? Mr. Ono recently has had an apprentice massage octopus in a large tub of water for 45 minutes instead of 30. He thinks the longer massage might make the octopus just a bit more tender and flavorful. Conversation is not encouraged and loitering after the meal is unheard of. A meal will cost the equivalent of at least $300. There is a three-month wait for lunch or dinner reservations.
Jiro Ono is a sushi master. This gentle and obsessed man has made sushi for 70 years. He is widely considered to be the foremost maker of sushi in the world. He left home at a young age. He says he was a bully in school. He became an apprentice, spending years learning the basic skills of sushi. At 85, Jiro is intent on learning more and improving. A craftsman, he says, must be able to turn out his product over and over again with no lessening in quality. He must always seek improvement. He must never be satisfied.
Jiro Ono has lived this credo with single-minded concentration. Until he had a heart attack at 70 he would arrive at the Tsukiji Fish Market before dawn to select only the freshest and highest quality fish. Then it's to his restaurant to teach and supervise the apprentices, consider every aspect of the lunch and dinner to come that day, review the reservation list and consider where each customer will be placed. Expense is not a concern. Jiro Ono buys only the best rice suited for sushi which is precisely cooked by apprentices; only the best fish is used. Nori is carefully toasted over a small grill outside his restaurant by his son or a trusted apprentice. He and his son daily taste everything before the restaurant opens. Even the tiniest of imperfections are corrected. If a fish doesn't meet his standards, it is discarded. One apprentice made 200 sheets of tamago, the sweet egg omelet, before he at last received Jiro Ono's approval. The other 199? They were discarded. The apprentice wept when Mr. Ono approved the 200th.
And of Mr. Ono's family and his interests? He refers to his wife with affection but we never see her or hear from her. His two sons hold him in respect. The oldest, Yoshikazu, is 50. When Jiro dies or is incapacitated Yoshikazu will take his father's place. Mr. Ono sent his youngest son out to start his own sushi restaurant when Mr. Ono thought he was ready. He wouldn't allow his two sons to become competitors, especially when by tradition the oldest son will inherit the business. For Mr. Ono's interests beyond sushi, he seems not to have any. Sushi has been his life, to perfect the art and craft of a taking a few simple but perfect ingredients and making them into something complex and subtle. Is the man to be admired. Absolutely. Is the man odd? Absolutely.
David Gelb has made a documentary of this extraordinary person. It's a wonderful piece of filmmaking.
One thing for sure. Mr. Ono would never, never allow a piece of cream cheese or an avocado in his kitchen.