Interview: Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb
In “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb documents Jiro Ono, the chef-owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a subterranean, 10-seat Tokyo restaurant that narrowed its options over the years, now serving nothing but sushi. Jiro is an octogenarian, earned three Michelin stars in 2008, and continues his quest for sushi perfection alongside oldest son and eventual successor Yoshikazu. In the movie, we also get to know his younger son, Takashi, who runs a second Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood; and Japanese restaurant critic Yamamoto, who deftly puts Jiro’s distinguishing achievements and characteristics into context. On March 6, we spoke with director David Gelb, who filmed the documentary over the course of two years and sifted through 150 hours of Japanese language footage with editor Brandon Driszoll-Luttringer to achieve the desired result.
Would Jiro Dreams of Sushi have worked with any other sushi chefs? Did you consider any other chefs?
Originally I thought it might be a film about three or four chefs, but when I met Jiro I realized that a film about him would be more than just a film about sushi…The movie works because it’s a movie not just about sushi, but it’s about an incredibly inspiring person and it’s about family, set in the world of sushi.
How many times have you eaten at Sukiyabashi Jiro, and was there any variation between meals?
I may have eaten there three times and had full tasting courses, and then I also had the privilege of tasting some of the sushi during filming, when we were filming close-up shots. Instead of offending Jiro, I had to eat it. That was my favorite part of the movie, was eating the sushi.
I read your quote where you say, “Jiro has created an art form.” If food can be art, in what ways is that possible?
I think that art is something that moves and inspires its audiences, so when people eat at Jiro, they really feel something when they’re eating the food, both in the presentation of the restaurant itself, the beauty of the sushi, and people feel uplifted when they eat there, so that’s as legitimate an art form as any other
Near the end of your movie, Jiro expresses admiration for Yoshikazu’s efforts as a sushi chef, and says that now he only has to continue on that path for the rest of his life. Was it a given that Jiro’s two sons would both become sushi chefs?
Not at all. In traditional Japanese culture, the son succeeds the father as his skill. The father will train the son, but Yoshikazu was on a bit of a journey before arriving that that decision. Yoshikazu had dreams of becoming a racecar driver or pilot. He had to accept his role as his father’s successor, but he got to live it. Jiro says sometimes you don’t choose your job, your job chooses you, and you have to appreciate it as best as you can.
Why wasn’t Jiro’s wife featured in the film?
She unfortunately declined to be in the movie, and it’s really just a matter of shyness. With everything Jiro offered me in terms of access, I wanted to be respectful of boundaries they set.
Did you meet her?
No, she didn’t come to the restaurant and didn’t want to be in the film, but I hear she’s a very sweet lady and very nice. It’s really just a matter of shyness, and that’s it.
In the press materials, I saw Yamamoto’s “five attributes to a great chef:
1. Take your work seriously
2. Aspire to improve
3. Maintain cleanliness
4. Be a better leader than a collaborator
5. Be passionate about your work.”
How many of those lessons do you incorporate in your own work as a filmmaker?
I try to incorporate all of it. I think Jiro’s philosophy certainly applies to all vocations. The movie was not an easy one to make. Our biggest challenge was the language barrier. We’re watching footage and interviews with such an inspiring person, and with such a poignant philosophy about hard work. We had to have the patience to make this film with 150 hours of footage in a foreign language. There are no short cuts, and Jiro was an inspiration to us to keep working. Even thought it was a film about him, we applied his philosophy as much as possible in making the movie.
How were you able to convince Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Burns to appear in a short film when you were still in high school?
I co-directed that with a good friend of mine who is a director now, Josh Safdie, and his parents were friends with them. They had free time, and they thought it was would be fun to help out students. They were generous to come out and act and teach us filmmaking at the same time.
In what ways will food and restaurants continue to factor into your movies, and do you anticipate another food-related movie?
I love eating, and I love sushi so much that it was easy for me to work so hard on a documentary set in the world of sushi. If I were to find another restaurant or cuisine that inspires me to the same extent, then maybe I’d make a film about that, but now I’m working on something completely different. It’s a narrative, and there is a chef as a character, but it’s not nearly as focused on food as this movie.
Photos courtesy of David Gelb