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Take Three: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro"Ultimate simplicity leads to purity."

The chef shapes the sushi with his long slender hands. He lifts it gently, sliding a small brush over the top, glazing it with a rich brown sauce. Deftly, he lowers the sushi onto a black lacquer plate. Thin slabs of tuna settle. Fish skins shimmer. Grains of rice tuck neatly into recesses, defying gravity. The sauce glints on the moist surface.

To watch David Gelb's 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you'd think you were watching a sort of avant-garde theater performance. Everything is so calculated and seemingly choreographed—from the deliberate, elegant cuts of their long knives to the chef's confident forming and shaping of the sushi. The simplicity of the food and the preparations are inspiring.

If you haven't seen Gelb's film, I highly recommend it (as of this writing, it is available on Netflix streaming). The film focuses on the career of 85-year-old sushi-master Jiro Ono, who owns a world-renowned restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building. The movie clocks-in at close to 90 minutes, and despite what you may think, every moment is riveting and engaging.

From Jiro's stoic work ethic and understated wisdom I offer the following takeaways for aspiring craftspeople (shokunin):

Takeaway One—Five attributes of a great chef

Yamamoto, the food critic interviewed in the film, says all great chefs share five important attributes:

  • Consistency. They take their work seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
  • Drive. They aspire to improve their skills.
  • Cleanliness. "If the restaurant doesn't feel clean, the food isn't going to taste good."
  • Impatience. "They are better leaders than collaborators. They're stubborn and insist on having it their way.
  • Passion. "They are perfectionists."

Jiro describes his approach, "I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is."

For me, this film was humbling. It made me think long and hard about my skill sets. In our modern world we are asked to be experts in so many things. The LinkedIn website now offers users the ability to endorse colleagues for a variety of skills. Some people, myself included, have dozens of declared "skills," ripe for the clicking. If you could choose just one to improve and master, which would it be? What single skill would I want to do "over and over, improving bit by bit?" It's a tough, but essential question. 

Takeaway Two—"There is always room for improvement"

After World War II, the sushi masters of Japan believed there was nothing new to add to the long history of sushi. Jiro disagreed and continued to invent. Sometimes he would dream of sushi and awaken inspired to create new dishes. In the film, Jiro's son and heir-apparent, Yoshikazu relates his father's advice, "Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That's what he taught me."

There is always room for innovation, no matter what line of work you do. If the status quo says there is nothing to add, then challenge the assumption. Innovation can be subtle. Innovation isn't always a revolutionary technique. Jiro develops a simple technique for softening the texture and bringing out the fragrances of a rubbery octopus. An apprentice massages the octopus in a large mixing bowl for 50 minutes—about 20 minutes longer than other chefs—during preparation for the meal. This massage treatment is a subtle, albeit time-consuming, process adjustment which makes a big difference in product quality. True craftsmen is never satisfied with the process and makes adjustments and tweaks in a constant effort to elevate their craft.

Jiro sums up his approach, "Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it. We don't care about the money. All we want to do is make better sushi."

Takeaway Three—It's never a "one-man show"

Although the film centers on the impish Jiro, it carefully highlights a cast of supporting players who make his lauded work possible. Apart from Jiro's sons, with their stake in carrying on the tradition of quality, we meet apprentices who toil day-in and day-out, performing menial and sometimes painful tasks, for years before they are elevated to the next level. Yamamoto declares that most apprentices are not trusted to cook eggs until 10 years into their apprenticeships. Jiro's apprentice recounts how, after finally being awarded the egg sushi task, he made 200 "unacceptable" attempts before he was told "now that...is how it's done." He cried when he heard this.

Jiro and company also rely on the expertise of their vendors in the marketplace. They have shrimp experts, rice experts and tuna experts. It's fascinating to watch the tuna expert use a flashlight and his fingers to determine the quality of the flesh. The rice expert boasts about his refusal to sell his best rice to the Grand Hyatt, because they don't know how "to cook it properly…like Jiro."

My takeaway here is the importance of finding the right support structure for your business. From your day-to-day team to your field experts, the successful business is built on the development of long-term relationships of trust. The people who work for you must have clear expectations of the quality you expect while giving them the opportunity to fail (safely) until they get it right.

Jiro's expectations are clear, because he lives by example: "Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success... and the key to being regarded honorably."