The first time I had sushi, it was from a vendor booth at a Birmingham street fair. So began our torrid affair.
Since then, I’ve become a bit of an amateur sushi snob, scowling at dinner companions who can’t properly use chopsticks or — worse — stir wasabi into their soy sauce.
But that’s all petty grumblings in the grand scheme of things.
A world away, working from his restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building — a 10-seat affair only slightly less unassuming than that Birmingham booth — Jiro Ono is in search of perfection.
In the world of sushi, his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, with its coveted three-star Michelin rating and months-long waiting list, is as close to perfect as there is.
It has won the praise of critics, foodies and revered French chef Joël Robuchon, who told The Wall Street Journal, “This is the restaurant that showed me sushi could be a great dish. Before that time, to me, sushi was just a piece of raw fish on rice, but there it becomes art.”
Jiro’s art, his obsession, and his relationship with the two sons who live in his long shadow, is the subject of David Gelb’s engaging documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” on Blu-ray, DVD, iTunes and Amazon Instant.
On one level, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” operates as a great example of the regrettably named genre known as “food porn.”
Even the most jaded foodie is likely to be in awe of Jiro’s sushi creations and the few preparation secrets he lets slip.
If you think octopus is too chewy, Jiro agrees, and the octopus he uses has been massaged into tender submission during the course of hours by apprentice chefs not yet allowed to touch a knife.
From the lean and fatty tuna to eel to shrimp, this is a film made for high definition, each dish captured in colorful, mouth-watering detail by Gelb, who acts as his own cinematographer.
At 85 years old and with no desire to retire, Jiro’s life revolves around sushi. He hates having to close the restaurant for holidays and takes off only for funerals. He literally dreams about sushi, sometimes awaking with a new idea.
Like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, he is uncompromising. For him there is only the work and its result, and if perfection isn’t possible that’s no excuse for not trying harder.
In a culture where reverence for one’s ancestors is a serious obligation, Jiro is an oddity.
He barely knew his parents and was on his own almost from childhood. Visiting their grave, he wonders why he should honor them when they didn’t even raise him.
At that, Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, warns he shouldn’t risk offending his ancestors like that.
Yoshikazu is possibly just as capable a chef as his father, but as the oldest son he is obligated by tradition to wait until Jiro dies or retires to take over the family business.
His younger brother, meanwhile, not burdened with the family legacy, has the luxury of opening his own restaurant.
Unlike his sons, the parentless Jiro was able to become his own man and indulge his own needs, honing his craft to the edge of perfection.
Jiro dreams of sushi, but whatever dreams his sons may have had that didn’t involve sushi are lost.
We do know that Yoshikazu has one hobby outside the restaurant. He likes fast cars.
Whatever else he may daydream of as he rides his bicycle to and from the fish market each morning he keeps to himself.
He’s living the dream, but it’s the dream of his father.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a beautiful film about art and obsession and the sacrifices they demand.
Whether those sacrifices are worth it, who is to say?
Franklin Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is published Thursdays in the TimesDaily.