Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry
If you’re a fan of Just Hungry, not to mention fond of Japanese food in general, chances are you have seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi (IMDB, English Wikipedia; available on Blu-ray, and I highly recommend seeing it in hi-def), a documentary film about Jiro Ono, sushi master and proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi-ya that has been awarded 3 stars by the Michelin Guide.
Ever since it was released in late 2011 people keep asking me what I think about it. I didn’t get a chance to see it until it came out on video last year, since English documentary films about sushi masters don’t get released in theatres in semi-rural France.
You would think that it would be right up my alley - a movie about a Japanese sushi master. It is beautifully filmed, with tons of mouthwatering closeups of sushi. And the star, Jiro Ono, is a fascinating character - a man who had dedicated his whole life to just one thing, perfecting sushi.
Yet, and regretfully, it left me rather cold. I think the problem is that the film makers were far too distant from their subject matter, far to reverent. There were several questions left unasked, such as - why was his wife just shown in old photographs? Was she still alive, or had she passed away? (Not an unreasonable thing to wonder about since at the time of filming Mr.Ono himself is 85.) His two sons continued in his footsteps as sushi chefs, the younger one with a store of his own, and the older one working at the ‘honten’ (the original, main store) with his father. Did they ever rebel or have other plans? There’s only some vague reference to the older son wanting to be a car racer or something when he was a boy, but nothing about his dreams or aspirations as an adult. It’s like they assumed that some things were just the ‘done thing’ in Japan, and therefore they didn’t question them, or something along those lines.
To be honest, I can’t at the moment recall a single documentary made about Japan by people who are not Japanese that manage to get to the heart of their subject matter in a satisfying manner, and unfortunately Jiro Dreams of Sushi is no exception. I personally think a fly-on-the-wall type of approach, where they just filmed a day or two at Sukiyabashi Jiro, would have been far more effective in giving us an insight into Jiro Ono and why this tiny little sushi-ya in a building basement is so lauded by Michelin and other foreign critics. (As to if Sukiyabashi Jiro is acknowledged in Japan amongst Japanese chefs and critics as the unquestioned ‘best’ - well no, it isn’t. I wrote about this to some extent on Quora.) If anything, the most interesting aspects of this film for me are the reverent approach of the film makers, and exactly why Jiro Ono has become a celebrity outside of Japan over other sushi masters.
Kings of Pastry
If you like documentaries about food and craftsmen doing their best work, I highly recommend a far less pretentious documentary called Kings of Pastry (IMDB, Wikipedia, available on DVD). This follows three French pastry chefs who are preparing for the 2008 edition of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) or Best Artisans of France competition in the pastry making category, that takes place every 4 years in Lyon.
This is not nearly as beautifully presented as Jiro Dreams of Sushi - it sort of has the look of a home video shot on camcorders, to be honest - but the inherent drama is so compelling, and so much fun, that I find it a lot more enjoyable. It has a natural focal point in the competition, which is truly nail biting stuff. The three chefs featured, especially Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School in Chicago, are all personable and easy to root for. And the pastry creations are quite wonderful, although some of the designs seem to border on the kitschy.
What it shares with Jiro Dreams of Sushi is that it shows how dedicated artisans who practice their craft for years on end, can schieve a high level of perfection. These days fewer and fewer people seem to dedicate themselves to perfecting something for years on end, and it’s good to be reminded that in many cases, true excellence can only come from practice, practice, practice.
Kings of Pastry is a load of fun and I highly recommend it. It’s available on DVD and iTunes.
By the way, [SPOILER ALERT] only one of the featured chefs wins the coveted MOF award during this competition, and I got to visit his patisserie a couple of months ago. I’ll tell you about it soon.