I am continually asked what is good sushi and one thing that sticks out in my mind is Jiro the most famous sushi chef on the globe.
I last visited Jiro before he made Michelin, or Michelin made him. When his movie was released, I had so many calls from people asking me if I watched the movie. I knew he is a good chef, yet I couldn’t watch the whole Jiro movie even after trying several times. Each time I felt put off knowing full well that his life isn’t much different from most Japanese chefs. I found it patronizing and the style of the movie gave me the impression that Jiro’s sushi and craft is elevated to some kind art.
I first visited Jiro’s counter 25 years ago when it was considered a “bon address”, a place worthy to go. I never had the impression that he was so high up on the ladder. In those days the Ginza was a place with several high-end sushi counters, all more or less had the same quality fish. Even today a high-end sushi bar only uses domestically caught fish, as this is a basic standard.
In those days, sushi restaurants mostly survived by catering to businessmen, or as we know it, the salary-man. Of course there were private clients but the flow of frequent business was dependent on company expense accounts.
Most Japanese had a black book with there best-kept secrets inside, private numbers and addresses were carefully guarded. In fact, I had a friend and over the years and whenever he took out his black book, he would carefully note his preferences. I never saw inside his book but he had invited us to Jiro.
Jiro is a very capable sushi chef, and his sushi was like many B1 office building restaurants of this quality. An over-sized wall plaque outside his shop with his name on is something you wouldn’t normally find at any high-end Japanese restaurant. This opposes the very essence of Japanese thinking.
Located in a bourgeois office building it has a slightly cold feel to it clients sat on stools. Inside the clients’ counter is made from perfect urushi, a traditional lacquered finish which is very elegant. Excluding the books for sale at the entrance which give a commercial feel to this small restaurant. In Japan many chefs are reluctant to mix their business with his commercial aspects. Though times have changed, today’s younger chefs make more money from books, so their focus is on lots of nice pictures.
After so many years of service, Jiro developed an important mix of unusual clients and some relationships with international chefs and food critics. When Michelin was planning their launch of the “red book”, they were in search of a reliable “new face”. In a place that where there are so many excellent options, they finally choose Jiro, a seasoned veteran with a face easy to recognize, and a good pair of hands.
To understand a good sushi chef, you need to understand the system. In the old days, a good restaurant had supporters, and clients would frequently visit becoming regular patrons. Over time the chef would develop clients via other clients, and not from a guide, or by street traffic. A chef’s standard of clients would eventually distinguish his business and stature.
It is clear that Jiro has developed a following but nothing in comparison to what has happened since the movie and the Michelin guide. Once upon a time Jiro would turn away gaijin clients, and he demanded Japanese speakers only, but at the same time he acted in a way that was sometimes outrageous: http://mesubim.com/2012/11/09/michelin-2
I’ll never forget this story of the two tourists staying at Hotel Okura who booked Jiro but made a fatal mistake. They knew Japanese was a precondition, so they hired a translator to help them communicate. Excited by the notion of an authentic sushi experience they walked into a nightmare.
Just through the door, their translator was publicly scolded by Jiro and asked to leave. The American guests were shocked and ashamed. In fairness to Jiro, he was right, and the translator should have known better, but the way he did it was terribly wrong when he kicked them out.
It turned out to be a very sour event that was unkind. Today this would never happen, and if it did a chef could lose his stars. Nowadays you can reach Jiro by speaking English and calling the restaurant directly: http://www.sushi-jiro.jp/english/
The idea of all great sushi chef is somehow found in the fish’s flesh, and that all depends on the chef’s supplier and budget. This is true about any sushi counter, but while fish is a pre-condition to excellent sushi, it can easily get lost by a chef’s personality.
We categorize chefs in two distinctive categories; those who speak and those non speaking. The speaking chef is mostly smiling and sharing his stories, while the other type is more quiet and focused. A chef’s demeanor with clients is crucial as he must always be in control and gauges his client’s interest. However there is little choice in a sushi restaurant given the chef often portions his daily fish and so seconds is problematic. You can imagine how awkward it is for a chef that doesn’t speak English when he is confronted with a foreigner who demands the same fish repeatedly – he just doesn’t have the fish.
A sushi chef can see every chew, and hear every conversation as he stands opposite his client. He must always be in top form, his knife razor-sharp, no mistakes for the perfect cut, and in every customers bite, he has twisted and turned his nigiri anywhere from 2-5 times. You can imagine the physical force required and accuracy in each and every nigiri.
In Jiro’s case, he does not always cut his own fish, his helpers are bouncing around assisting him to make it easier. There is a back room where apprentices are cutting fish and handing it to Jiro. Oddly I can’t understand how any chef has someone else cutting his fish. The control the entire physical world is integral to any sushi counter and the cut is essential when it comes to taste.
So what is the right balance? Balance is not so easy to understand unless you measure it correctly. Sushi is 85% rice, 10% fish and 5% nikiri and wasabi. These are the proportions but in reality sushi is 100% heart. Any chef that works with fish must respect his clients first and foremost without permitting his ego to get in the way. In Japan many chefs are humble, and understand what it takes to be a great chef. I remember asking my friend why he didn’t have a book, and he replied “sushi is for my clients, not for pictures”.
The combination of ingredients is what makes the balance. If the nikiri is too salty, the nigiri is killed, if the rice is too sweet, or too sour, the taste is killed. There is no doubt that the rice is one of the most influential factors and the rice preparation is the background for all sushi. Then a chef will have his nori /seaweed/ and some keep it in a heated box while other pass it over a gas fire. I prefer the heated box as it keeps the nori dry and crisp.
But some would argue that the balance is different for each client and this is true. There is no doubt that many clients take the shoyu and make a swimming pool, floating their wasabi in it. At least 99% of all sushi lovers plunge their nigiri into a salt bath. I always wonder why – but ignorance is bliss.
The sushi balance must be based on taste and is significantly influenced by the umami spectrum. Some fish are more umami than others, while some are more rich, dense and fatty. The idea of sushi as unique puzzles some of the world’s best chefs.
One time I was speaking with a French chef working for Alain Ducasse who believed that sushi wasn’t really cuisine. Certainly a French way of thinking, I understood what he meant, but at the same time I know how wrong he was. The preparation of sushi is as complex and intricate as any food preparation. The skill set and experience required is tremendous and certainly raw food has zero tolerance for margin of error.
More so when you sit at an eight-person counter, versus a 30 seat kai-ten sushi bar, you’ll feel difference instantaneously. If you eat sushi in a Nobu it’s better but the fashionable way of life and noise levels interfere and conflict. The staff is screaming every time a person enters, “irrashaimase” /meaning welcome/ and how relaxing is that? Noise volume is as important as anything when you are focusing on taste, and each space has its own individual style and energy.
A room can have the energy to calm you, or excite you, and the experience is often dependent on where you sit, what you see, hear, and the chef’s immediate actions. Never underestimate the years of Japanese zen, it’s a way of life and not just a morsel of food to please your belly.
A quick visit to Tsukiji will impress anyone just by the shear size. You notice that the smell of rotten fish is almost non-existent there. The main reason is the water used at the market isn’t chlorinated and so the fish doesn’t degrade and rot.
The fish origin, type, cut, texture, size and vinegar all play a role. The rice quantity and quality and compression by the chef’s palm and fingers adds to the final balance. Think of it like painting, it’s the brush stroke that count, how you layer and build the image. In sushi the nikiri is the last brush stroke before the clients eats.
But at the end of the day the taste is based on a final line. This line is in part experience, knowing what is balance, and having experienced many chef’s in their pursuit to make the ultimate sushi. There is no one element, as it is a combination of elements. It also requires the right mood for the client, and there is no doubt that atmosphere plays an important role, as do ceilings, walls, floors and counter.
But surely a fish should never be fishy, and should not be dominated by the vinegar used in the rice, and or the wasabi. The taste should be smooth, elegant, pure, textural, sometimes delicate and refreshing leaving an immediate lasting impression. Each fish has its own identity and order.
Each chef has his own idea about what is balance, and what it takes to optimize taste but it’s not random. Sushi requires honesty, integrity and freshness, all in one bite. There are no masks, no tricks, or no hidden agenda. A great sushi chef will refine the process, fine tune it and balance and re-balance his entire career. This is not to say that much changes in terms of philosophy, because most chefs get set in their ways.
For most clients enjoying sushi is something that comes easily. There is no time to think when you eat sushi as the pace is so quick. So order plays a significant role and the idea of omakase is key. If the rice is too strong for the fish you’ll taste rice, and if the fish is too large, it becomes to difficult to chew – not to mention you’ll get full very quickly.
One of the reasons sushi has remained so well-defined is that this trade has been protected by the apprenticeships. In the old days any apprentice would work for 10 years and later require the permission of his boss to go out on his own. At that time he would assume in part the name of his employer.
Rice is the single most important ingredient /respect/ but equally as important is the vinegar used. Jiro’s favorite rice vinegar is his “original vinegar recipe”, especially designed by Jiro and prepared by a producer exactly according to his specifications. Most sushi chefs use a red vinegar, akasu while others like Jiro use a white vinegar and I prefer the white.
The main issue about the rice is the recipe and percentages of sugar and vinegar. I also consider the wetness of rice a critical factor. Jiro’s rice was too wet and slightly soggy but this can happen depending when the rice is made.
Sushi skill is very particular and takes skilled hand-eye coordination, immense energy and dedication. Think about it; most chefs must go to Tsukiji before 6am, walk the market to meet their vendors, buy fish and drive back to the shop where they begin to clean. Then relax an hour or so before you need to prepare your rice. All of this happens in a flash and then you open your doors for lunch. I always believe that lunch is the best meal, as the fish is still morning market fresh.
The chef has to have all the skills and dedication to his clients and suppliers. There are no special awards for being skilled except the smile of a satisfied client who understands, or a client that easily recognizes quality.
I am an avid sushi consumer, and I’ve tried many Michelin restaurants and still experiment by searching new faces all the time. I eat out 3/4 days per week and other days I am cooking, or trying to cook. I am not a food critic and other readers do not always share my opinions.
I post mostly from one sushi counter but I am not hindered by choice. I am always keeping an open mind and searching for “new” sushi chefs with the right set of skills according to my interest and taste. I do not believe that taste is arbitrary, even though it’s subjective and after 30 years, I am very focused on the fish, the idea of the perfect bite.
A single bite you remember for a long time, a bite that speaks for itself and humbles you. But don’t be fooled by fatty fish, fat is a trick that fools most. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy o-toro, but what are more important are the timing and taste, and not just the sensation. Personally I adore tuna, and I have said this before, there is no fish in the sea as impressive as hon maguro.
Fish is a gift; a chef’s hands transition the fish from the sea to his counter, to his client. It is an intimate experience between man and nature. Imagine the purity of Japanese fish, the perfection and attention to detail – it all seems so natural.
Now visualize any kitchen and it is noisy, but here the utensils are so few and the experience and focus in not on the chef himself, it’s his hands and the fish as he reaches and points down the fish to your plate.
But not all sushi restaurants are quiet are they? Imagine the difference of sushi served in a quiet place, at a silky touch of a solid hinoki counter when there is a moment of silence. You listen to the crisp seaweed, and feel the umami roll over your tongue. Put it all together, perfectly preserved raw fish cut by a razor sharp blade and voila!
Purity of fish that has been fished in local waters, perfectly preserved, no damage to the fish or its organs. Most fish lovers over look the importance of fishing and the preservation and integrity of fish after it’s caught.
Here are some older posts on techniques used to maintain fish after they are landed on the fishing vessel.
So what makes good sushi? A top sushi chef must have a big heart and understand the balance between three key elements; fish, rice and his clients. A chef should be modest and fitting, not pretentious but strong enough to have his own identity without imposing himself, or elevating himself above his clients.
Note: these photos are not Jiro sushi – and were taken at Mr. T.