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.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Amazon Instant Video, Blu-ray and DVD. It’s also available on iTunes and Netflix.

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.

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Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I've seen the MOF documentary, and it was the stuff of nightmares, in a way, but also of dreams. Even if it sort of confirmed the stereotype that "pastry chefs are mad/special/different/ control freaks" but was a celebration of the art of pastry.

Grown up men (no women, funnily) completely absorbed in a dream, for years.
The sheer passion for something rather, well, frivolous, but taken with utter seriousness and military stile precision. And when one of them just missed that door...(no further spoilers, I promise).
I loved it,they are artists, of that most effimerous but beautiful (even if kitsch at times) of arts that is pastry cooking, but artists never the less.
PS: I did not get to catch the sushi documentary yet..

stefafra | 14 January, 2013 - 18:08

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I have seen both and I agree with you, that Jiro Dreams of Sushi is great "food porn". Having only spent a total of 6 weeks in Japan, I can't pass myself off as an expert on Japanese culture, but from my limited point of view, I think it gives a pretty good picture of a Japanese family business. It was very reverential in tone, but I think that it also passed along the feeling of lost opportunity and delayed dreams of Jiro's sons. I recommend it highly.
The Kings of Pastry was huge fun- being a fan of pastry and getting over ambitious in my own kitchen gives me some respect for these people who produce such wonders out of simple ingredients of butter, flour and sugar!

anon. | 14 January, 2013 - 19:11

I'm curious as to whether or

I'm curious as to whether or not you've ever seen "The Great Happiness Space". It's about a host club in Osaka. I enjoyed it, but I'd be interested in hearing your opinion on it!

SputnikSweetie | 14 January, 2013 - 19:23

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I completely agree with you on "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." It left me cold as well and with the same questions about the wife and sons. I can't believe how my fellow Americans have gone so berserk over it. And what was with the one "food journalist" who insisted how amazing and unique the place is? The filmmakers obviously relied only on him and the dinner party toward the end that he seemed to have organized looked so contrived. Why didn't they interview Jiro's average customers? I have a feeling there are many sushi-ya's in Tokyo that are just as good and may even have more interesting stories behind them. Yes, a lot of the problem is that the filmmakers are gaijin, I'm sure and a "fly-on-the-wall" approach could have been much more intriguing.

Wendy Tokunaga | 15 January, 2013 - 07:50

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I've seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi both the documentary and the version with the commentary. To answer your question, his wife is still alive and chose not to be shown in the documentary.

Actually, most of your questions might be answered if you watch the version with all the commentaries.

anon. | 15 January, 2013 - 09:04

The oddness of the Superstar Chef

I read your reply on Quora and cannot but agree with the sentiment of what you wrote. While we here in Denmark certainly think the Michelin Guide is a prestigious book to be featured in, we also go more on word of mouth when we seek out new places to dine. We don't have superstar chefs as such; we have a few who are semi-famous due to exposure on tv and some diners would actively seek out restaurants with them in the kitchen but for the most part we do as you: eat by reference.

Also, I greatly dislike selecting one person to be 'the best' at anything as subjective as cooking. I have always felt it a bit condescending to those who prefer other than the so-called best as taste isn't something you can measure or grade. One cake may be prettier than another, certainly, but one person may prefer one with more strawberries while another selects the one with less sweet custard as their favorite. It is as subjective as it gets.

PS: Sorry for ranting :D

dracuella | 15 January, 2013 - 11:09

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I happened to watch this two documentaries recently on netflix as well! great movies about food.
Looking forward for the release of Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras). French version of Jiro
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SfehOcq84A

winnie | 17 January, 2013 - 03:32

Jiro Dreams of Sushi available on Netflix

I like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and thought it was very informative. For those of you with a Netflix account, it is currently available to watch online (streaming) or on DVD/BluRay.

Garrick Saito | 18 January, 2013 - 11:55

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I love any movie about or set in japan for the chance to be emersed in the language, food, culture.... It was worth seeing but you are right, it was from an outsiders viewpoint.

guest | 19 January, 2013 - 07:32

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

When I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi last year, I was left wanting as well. There's so many background story to the documentary that was left unexplained, grrrr..... But, it's all soon forgotten when a slow-mo of a sushi being made flash on my screen. Hahaha.... I do wish there are more popularised Japanese food documentaries that are made from the Japanese point of view. Any suggestions?

cooking. eating. carousing. | 21 January, 2013 - 05:16

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

Hmm...the problem in finding ones that have English subtitles. I will take a look around.

maki | 21 January, 2013 - 20:47

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I saw Jiro on netflicks a few months ago. Personally, I thought the movie was informative, because I never really cared how sushi was made; I just enjoyed eating it! After watching the movie, I learned more about sushi chefs and how they create sushi. But, after reading this post, I began wondering about the same questions. Maybe this gaijin filmed documentary was primarily focusing on educating the public about sushi and how Jiro became successful with his craft?

J.J. | 23 January, 2013 - 08:53

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

Hi,

I am just really pleased that a documentary has been made about this subject, he is a true sushi master and it must be a real insight into his approach. I teach Japanese cooking in London so am naturally interested, I haven't seen the film yet though!

Yuki

Yuki | 26 January, 2013 - 17:33

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

Thank you for your opinion on these two documentaries. I watched both almost back to back on netflicks a few months ago. It is interesting to hear your perspective as a Japanese person on the Jiro documentary. I personally really enjoyed the beautiful images and seeing the complete dedication of this man to his art. Now that you mention it, I am more aware of the very reverential tone of the whole thing.

I also loved watching Kings of pastry. It was such a different style and so interesting to see the dedication of these men to the competition. I, like you, thought a lot fo the designs were quite kitschy. Some of the scenes are very full of emotions and I cried at one of those dramatic moments (wont say more for those who haven't seen it).

I must say Maki, that it is very nice to see you back and posting!

KatherineN | 28 January, 2013 - 16:21

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

Hi Maki, I don't visit your blog as often as I once did, but tonight I had a question about your okonomiyaki so stopped by and saw the Jiro post. Here in Seattle we have two or three, perhaps more, sushi chefs who trained under Jiro. So maybe not so special? The movie was filmed beautifully, but sushi is not my favorite food so it was just okay.

Noodles, on the other hand...I love a good noodle movie! So of course Tampopo is a favorite movie, and I have to ask you if you have seen the movie "Ramen Girl" with the late Brittany Murphy? Yes, it is a corny chick flick, but I think it's really cute and, well, you would just have to see it. I found it a pretty realistic depiction of an American in Tokyo and would love to know what you thought of it. Thank you for your blog and for making it through the last couple of tough years! Stay strong!
Andrea

anon. | 5 February, 2013 - 06:07

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

I did see Ramen Girl...I wouldn't say it's a great movie though ^_^; I'm not surprised it went direct to DVD rather than getting a theatrical release. It's cute though, and I appreciate the fact that they hired real Japanese actors like Toshiyuki Nishida (who played the ramen shop owner) rather than pseudo-Japanese-generic-Asian-American actors who don't really speak Japanese, as so many American productions do.

maki | 5 February, 2013 - 19:16

Re: Pondering two food documentaries: Jiro Dreams of Sushi ...

Now I get why they say that cooking is an art. It was really exciting to watch the ways by which they prepare cakes and sushi with great ease and decorate in a way that we think is impossible.

golden age cheese

dane | 8 October, 2014 - 14:35

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