shokunin

What Would Jiro Do? Gaining valuable life lessons from dead fish and the world's greatest sushi chef

What Would Jiro Do? Gaining valuable life lessons from dead fish and the world's greatest sushi chef

Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_sushi roll
Sushi roll Photo by Allison Hembd
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_scot
Scot Loranc Photo by Allison Hembd
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_sashimi
Red Snapper, Tuna and John Dory Nigiri Photo by Allison Hembd
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_platter
The Final Platter Photo by Allison Hembd
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_sushi roll
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_scot
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_sashimi
Austin Photo Set: News_Mark_sushi class_april 2012_platter

If there’s one thing you will learn from a screening of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s that Jiro Ono LOVES sushi. Not because it earned him the Guinness World Record for “Oldest Three-Star Michelin Chef.” Not because it’s kept him gainfully employed for the last seven decades. And not because it has recently made him the most famous elderly Asian since Mr. Miyagi (may he rest in peace). This 86-year-old fishmonger loves sushi because he is naturally predisposed to do so.

His tongue detects the indiscernible subtleties that distinguish a great cut of fish from the greatest cut of fish. His fingers are perfect for delicately shaping grains of rice into delectable fish mattresses. He has the patience and stamina required to pummel an octopus for 50 minutes until it reaches its optimal texture. And he has the drive to continue his pursuit of perfection in spite of his unsurpassable achievements and a bout with cardiac arrest.

Like the time I took up swimming after Michael Phelps swept the Olympics, I had to see if sushi was my undiscovered calling. Luckily, I had a pass to Central Market’s Sushi 101 cooking class that was just dying to be redeemed. Although it may not compare to the ten or more years of tutelage it takes to become a shokunin (Japanese for "sushi chef"), I left the culinary crash course with an even greater amount of respect for Jiro Ono, the world’s greatest sushi chef.  

Sushi 101 begins at the sign-in counter, where you contractually acknowledge the fact that you will be wielding knives while knocking back sake and wine. Although Jiro’s views on drinking on the job weren’t explicitly stated in the documentary, it’s pretty safe to say he’d be against it. After all, what is a chef without his senses? They’d be no better than the two middle-aged cougar hunters pounding micro-brews before class.

While taking my seat, I noticed a steaming electric rice cooker that was seconds away from sounding a “ding” of completion. That’s another item you’d never find at Sukiyabashi Jiro. Rather than concede to the convenience of modern technology, Jiro purposely purchases the most temperamental rice on the Japanese market. His vendor actually refuses to sell his grains to any other chef, because he knows that only Jiro has the skill for it.

 My Tiger Eye Roll looked like a car tire, my over-spiced Suicide Roll killed my sinuses, my Skinny Roll resulted in a party foul, my California Roll was as flawed as Lindsay Lohan’s cosmetic surgery.

As the pupils filed into the tiny classroom, including the two inebriated midlife crises, our palates were stimulated with a pickled daikon salad and a spicy tuna taco. Each plate looked exactly the same — another industry standard Jiro frowns upon. At his 10-seat sushi bar, Jiro slices each fish specifically for the diner consuming it. Women are typically given smaller portions to assure they finish each course at the same time as their male counterparts. He further maximizes dining efficiency by placing each of the 20 courses in front of the customer’s dominant hand.

With my final bite of tuna taco swimming down my esophagus, I redirected my attention to the Danny Devito-like voice coming from the front of the room. Unlike the stoic subject of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, instructor, Scot Loranc (yes, with one “t”), was booming with humor and personality. Although his opportune “quips” felt a little rehearsed, he delivered them with more charm and charisma than Jiro exhibited while receiving his three Michelin Stars.

After a brief explanation of sushi's origins, Scot rattled off a list of essential sushi-making equipment with the scrutiny of a college student at bar closing time; anything will do. He even went as far as to suggest that pricey Japanese cutlery was completely unnecessary. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Jiro would beg to differ. Regardless, the man knew his audience. Everyone’s faces lit up with glee once Scot made the art of sushi seem accessible to every family.

Finally, the time had come to roll the sushi. At Sukiyabashi Jiro, we would have been forbidden to make direct eye contact with the fish at this point in our training. At Central Market, we were diving into rice bowls hands first to practice Scot’s “Roll and Commit” maki technique. After belittling us with the "ambitious" goal of one successful roll per student, Scot failed to obtain perfection; batting 4 for 5 that night. If he were Jiro, the class would have probably concluded with a Harakiri.

Roll after disgraceful roll, it became blatantly clear that sushi is not my life’s calling. Not only because my maki abilities mimicked my present wrapping prowess, which doesn't exist, but more because I just didn’t care. Even though my Tiger Eye Roll looked like a car tire, my over-spiced Suicide Roll killed my sinuses, my Skinny Roll resulted in a party foul, my California Roll was as flawed as Lindsay Lohan’s cosmetic surgery and my Hand Roll looked like a seaweed burrito, all I wanted was to destroy the evidence via digestive tract and get back to my computer so I could write this article.

As the tried-and-true success story goes, Jiro Ono has never worked a day in his life. Every morning he rolls out of bed, excited to make the world’s greatest sushi. Every night, he lies in bed as dreams of nigiri and maki dance through his head. And unlike most of us, Jiro hates holidays with the same passion he pours into his daily menu. Jiro doesn’t have a job; he has a calling.

If you find yourself cursing your alarm clock every morning, waking up in a cold sweat from work-related nightmares or counting down the days till the next winter break, you have a job. And it may be time to ask yourself, WWJD? What Would Jiro Do?