Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Life Lessons from Jiro's Life - A Primer for Cooks Across the Globe

Jiro Ono is 85 years old. He has been working with and serving Sushi since he was a young man, maybe 8 years old.  He is now preparing minimalist, completely simple, perfect sushi. A 20-course sushi tasting at his 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway stop will cost you 30,000 yen. That's about $400 USD and you might be able to devour that menu in 15 minutes making your subway stop much more expensive than you may have been prepared for. The following are the highlights from the cult movie 'Jiro dreams of Sushi' now available to view On Demand if you have Comcast Cable TV.

It's humorous to me that I am writing early morning thoughts about a man who dreams of preparing only sushi. I awoke @ 1:15 a.m. thinking about a lecture and presentation that I am doing on 'Umami - The Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm of Deliciousness' for JWU and @ Metro University later in September. Thus, 'I Dreamt of Umami' and 'Jiro Dreamed of Sushi.'

Repetition - Jiro's mantra is a quest to improve and make better sushi, everyday. Simple. Exact. Powerful. How can something so simple have so much depth of flavor? Uber-high quality of tuna, sea urchins and rice and the exacting detail of a life spent doing the same repetitive things... Jiro says in his Japanese sushi-warrior way that 'ultimate simplicity leads to purity'. It comes down to effort and repeating the same thing everyday. There are no secrets in the methods and techniques required here. Jiro speaks about his cooks and states that 'some are born with a natural gift. Some have a sensitive palate and sense of smell. In this business, if you work hard you'll get good over time. But, if you want to reach the next level, you'll need talent.'   You'll NEED talent.  Much of the philosophy behind these words is directly relevant to students of the culinary arts. Man, it's not easy - but it's easier if you dedicate yourself.

Flavor - 'If it doesn't taste good, you can't serve it'. Regardless of the language of origination these words speak to 'The Need to Feed.' Again, if it doesn't taste good you can't serve it. Simple. Start by purchasing the best products available. Use your first choice of product or use nothing. Jiro's menu is rewritten every day based on product availability, or - more succinctly - based on the quality of available products... Flavor is all that matters. If you read F. Point you get the same parable.

Jiro makes this ultimate point when speaking about delicious food. 'In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food. A cook needs to develop a palate capable of discerning good from bad.'
This should be required knowledge because I DESPISE paying for sub-par food, especially when the sign in the window says 'Incredible Italian' or 'The Most Delicious' or 'Better Than Grandma Used to Make'...

The concept of 'a point' in French cooking is that everything has a perfect point at which it is cooked. Jiro speaks about 'every ingredient has an ideal moment of deliciousness.' His understanding about umami is that it comes out through a balance of flavors. Jiro's umami is the 'ahhhhhhh' when you eat or drink, the satisfaction that your body has reacted to what you've put in your mouth. Umami is a physical response. I find that this tacit knowledge is cerebral and mystical at the same time. However, with food, you'll know when you know you've got something good going on on your plate.

Think about that last concept. Without having good taste how can you prepare good food? Perhaps you might sell it, but will your guests return for more? If your sense of taste is less than the people you are cooking for you will never be able to impress anyone...

On Jiro - According to Jiro's eldest son, and one can't argue much on these qualities, the following are the best qualities of Jiro who dreams of sushi:

1. He sets a standard for self-discipline

2. He is never satisfied with his work

3. He is always looking ahead

4. Jiro is self-critical

5. He is always looking to improve his skills

On Work - 'Once you decide on your occupation, 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 is the secret to success and the key to being regarded honorably.' It is readily apparent that most people can't keep up with the hard work of the kitchen. Be it Sushi or Thai, BBQ or Haute Cuisine - there is NO EASY OR FAST ROAD. As a cook, and then a chef, we must always try to improve upon ourselves. Jiro 'looks ahead'. He's 85 and he has something everyday to look forward to, even though he's been doing the same thing everyday, all his life. Oliver Cromwell said the same thing 350 years ago when he wrote 'He who stops being better stops being good.'

The Chef - Jiro believes that the following 5 attributes are necessry for a cook to be a Chef, a good Chef. Heed these sage words, grasshoppers....:

1. They ('good Chefs') take their work very seriously and consistently perform on the highest level

2. They aspire to improve their skills

3. Cleanliness. They work clean. ('THANK YOU, Jiro!!!!!!!!!!')

4. They have impatience and are better Leaders than Collaborators... and lastly,

5. A great chef is passionate.

Sit back and read those attibutes again and measure yourself, honestly, against the power of that advice... Get to work and work hard.

Details - It is essential in Jiro's world (not his dreams) to check every detail. Everyday he stamps his name and his life on the sushi served to his guests across the counter in a Tokyo subway stop. He gives detailed instructions and requires detailed effort in return. Students often ask me 'How do I get better?' Once again it comes back to repetition - perfectly repeat the same perfect things everyday. 'Perfect practice makes perfect...'

4:01 a.m. Time to dream... Peace.


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