Inside the Mind of a Sushi Wizard

Documentary Film - Jiro Dreams of Sushi

We have to question the PG rating of David Gelb’s debut feature documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (opening March 9 in New York). This is some food porn people. Equipped with an expensive sounding Red One digital cinema camera, Gelb spent two, one-month stints filming the handy work of 87-year old Tokyo sushi legend Jiro Ono (above) at his 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza. The resulting sushi smut—slow pans of glistening o-toro and saltwater eel painted with kabayaki sauce—made us crave umami for a week.

“The biggest misconception with sushi is that it’s simply raw fish and rice,” says the 28-year-old director after a recent screening at Lincoln Center. “It’s about the synthesis of the fish and the rice. The rice has to be prepared in such a specific way to bring out the character of the fish, which is also prepared in a precise manner. The edges of the flavors melt away and combine.”

As detailed in the film, getting to this beautiful marriage is an onerous process—beginning with the sourcing of the products (rice from a secretive purveyor; hand-selected fish from the hallowed Tsukiji market) and ending on the diner’s plate, often placed by the octogenarian’s own steady hands.     The movie, which has played at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals, triumphantly transcends any of the mundane junk food you will see on the TV food channels.  So, if you go for the food porn, you will stay for the story of this singular master sushi chef.  It's not just about sushi making but about the relentless, obsessive pursuit of perfection to the point where, as the title implies, it invades your dreams. After a screening, Le Bernardin chef/owner Eric Ripert - a master himself - called the film “humbling” and "inspiring".

"It's not about achieving perfection so much as the act of striving for it," said Ripert.

Gelb (left), an admitted sushi freak, didn’t set out to film Jiro alone. “I wanted to shoot a few different styles of sushi—Sushi Nozawa in Los Angeles, Sushi Yasuda in New York and Ginza Kyubey and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo,” he says, adding that Ginza Kyubey is probably more famous in Japan. “But, ultimately, I ended up making the film about Jiro because everything I wanted to say about sushi was done through his eyes. Jiro is one 10-seat restaurant and he is micro-managing every element. It’s perfectionism.”

--Matt RodbardThe film opens on March 9th in New York, downtown at the IFC Center and uptown at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

*** Sushi Restaurant Recommendations

We wanted to get David's opinion on the great debate that often gets argued around drained bottles of junmai daiginjo. Who has better sushi: New York or Los Angeles?  “In LA, you might get a better value, because in New York it tends to be a lot more expensive,” says Gelb diplomatically. “I can say that the uni in Los Angles is going to be better, because it’s all being farmed in Santa Barbara and being shipped to New York and even Japan.”

David gave us his favorite sushi restaurants in New York and LA:

New York  15 East Sushi Yasuda

Los Angeles Sushi Zo Hirozen Gourmet Sushi Nozawa (recently closed on February 28)