The following is a transcription from an archive of a roundtable discussion conducted by Taichi Kitamura for a site that no longer exists. The first half comes from 14 August 2007, the latter part comes from 12 November 2007. Photographs by Craig Mod. Translation by Yuko Enomoto. Please enjoy.
In late spring 2006, three master sushi chefs with very different backgrounds gathered at what is arguably the most venerated sushi restaurant in the world to discuss their craft. That restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, tucked away in the backstreets of the Ginza district in Tokyo, is run by the octagenarian Jiro Ono, named a “modern master” by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2005 for his contributions to Japanese cuisine.
Years ago, Ono trained Shiro Kashiba, the proprietor of Shiro’s in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. Kashiba took what he learned from Ono and traveled to the United States, where he set up Seattle’s first full-service sushi bar in 1967. Shiro’s is still one of the city’s most respected and popular sushi restaurants.
Taichi Kitamura, our third master, learned his craft at the foot of Mr. Kashiba, cutting and cleaning fish in Shiro’s for years before opening his own shop, Chiso, in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Kashiba and Kitamura decided to take a trip to Tokyo — a sort of sushi pilgrimage — to talk to Mr. Ono about what it takes to make great sushi. They were joined by prominent Japanese food critic and author Masuhiro Yamamoto and Ono’s son, Yoshikazu Ono, also a sushi chef.
Kitamura sets the scene for us:
“It was a muggy humid day and the skies unleashed torrents of rain as we arrived at a subway near Jiro’s restaurant. Shiro and I each bought umbrellas to use on the walk to the restaurant. I started getting nervous as we got close. I looked at Shiro, and he seemed a little nervous too.
“Jiro’s restaurant is in the basement of an old building. We walked downstairs and saw a man coming out of the bathroom. “Jiro-san!” Shiro yelled. Jiro hesitated and then yelled back “Kashiba!”
It turns out we were an hour early, so after a short greeting, we decided to roam around Ginza and return later for lunch. Shiro showed me his old haunts. I remember seeing a group of women in kimonos walking carefully around a large puddle, and a cook zipping through the crowds on his bicycle. At one point, we stopped in one of Shiro’s favorite beer gardens, done in a German style. I had one small glass of beer while Shiro drank down two mediums. Then we headed back to Jiro’s for lunch.”
When we returned, Jiro and his son made us a very memorable lunch. Yoshikazu would slice the fish and Jiro would make the nigiri just seconds later. He told us that we should eat the pieces of sushi within 10 seconds of being served to get the maximum flavor. A new piece would be plunked down in front of us a minute or 90 seconds later. It was quite a rapid pace, and I noticed Shiro was having trouble keeping up. ”
Jiro started us off with karei (flounder), followed in rapid succession by sumi ika (squid), inada (baby yellowtail), maguro, chutoro, toro, kohada (marinated shad), awabi abalone, katsuo (seared bonito) and sayori (saury fish). It was about this time that I noticed Shiro was sweating.”
Everything was good, but the squid was exquisite. Next he served kuruma ebi (boiled prawn), aji (spanish mackeral), iwashi (sardine), kobashira (yellow clam scallop), akagai (red clam) and a particularly tasty cut of anago (braised sea eel). The next piece was the one Jiro was most proud of: uni (sea urchin). To be frank, I think Shiro and I serve better sea urchin in Seattle all the time. But, of course, the lunch was delicious and memorable. Jiro finished the meal with ikura, shako (sand shrimp) and tamago.”
“It was a fantastic meal, although served at a pace that some (like Shiro) might find a little rapid. After it was done, we began our discussion. I wondered what the restaurant critic, Mr.Yamamoto, had thought of the lunch.”
Yamamoto: There has to be a difference in temperature between iridescent fish, like mackerel, and anago, for example. You walk into just about any sushi bar and everything is the same temperature. I felt the difference, eating Jiro’s sushi. The rice is room temperature, but the toppings come in different temperatures. It adds another dimension to the sushi and it feels great, so comfortable in your mouth.
Sushi should be presented as three movements of a concerto. The first movement features white-fleshed toppings, tuna, gizzard shad; the second movement, seasonal items; and, the third, classic offerings, such as egg, anago, norimaki and so forth.
Kitamura: I’d like to put a question to Jiro: What makes a good sushi chef?
Jiro Ono: Determination, a strong sense of carrying out one’s duty. You have to be always experimenting, always pursuing. There’s no easy way to achieve anything. You watch and learn. That’s all there is — just hard work. Then you begin to develop as a chef.
I’ve hiked around mountains a lot. Being in the basement all the time, I yearned for the sun. Thanks to all that walking I have strong legs and hips. That’s very important. You need good posture to stand behind the counter and make sushi all day. Without strength, your back begins to round and you look pathetic.
It’s important to throw yourself into your work with the determination to excel at it. Remain true to the basics. That applies to everybody. I used to work even in my dreams. I remember dreaming that I had finally reached the pinnacle. I had achieved it! Then I woke up and realized it was just a dream. That’s how much work became a part of me.
You have to constantly innovate and use good material. If you want to make it as a professional, create one or two of your own original dishes, unless you want to remain an apprentice all of your life. I don’t make it anymore, but I used to have an original octopus recipe that I prepared.
Kitamura: What kind of octopus dish was that?
Jiro Ono: I’m not telling. (laughs) It’s in my book.
Kitamura: What motivates you? Customer satisfaction?
Jiro Ono: I’m motivated by my love for work. I can’t do this if I don’t love it. You have to be able to delve into your work. I never think too much about other things. I’m constantly asking myself: “What can I do to make this better?” Always. Even now. I’ve been independent now for forty-something years, but I still think about that.
If there’s anything you don’t know, you read books about it or go out and try other kinds of food. Otherwise you don’t acquire new skills. If you only do as you’re told, and I always say this to the young folks, you’ll remain an apprentice. You have to constantly think about improving. If you delve deep into your own work, ideas begin to spring forth.
It’s also very important to go out and eat — see what’s out there. In the end, hard work is what makes the difference in where you end up.
Kitamura: Do you feel stress as a sushi chef?
Jiro Ono: I have lots of stress! Ulcers alone, I’ve had seven times. I have heart problems that my doctor tells me are stress-related.
Kashiba: What causes the stress at this point in your career?
Jiro Ono: Dealings with customers. You have to care about your customers without being overbearing, without showing that too much. When you worry too much about your customers, they can tell and will react to it. So that’s a type of stress you shouldn’t show to your customers. Customers will resist that.
Kitamura: How does one become a good sushi chef? Is training important?
Kashiba: Yes it is. Nobody goes to Japan to train as a sushi chef. That’s just wrong. The reason French, Italian and Chinese food in Japan tastes so good is the Japanese go there to train. They return, open a restaurant and serve good food. Competition makes the food better. So when a foreigner without any training opens a sushi shop overseas, it can’t be good. How can you create good food without knowing the basics? If there’s a spiritual element to that endeavor, that’s it. There’s not a single soul who comes to Japan for training. And they are doomed to fail because they don’t know the real thing. There’s a spiritual and technical aspect to creating sushi. You need to feed the spiritual side before taking on the technical aspects.
But American sushi is changing. There’s a sense now that good material is really important. That’s a natural transition.
Foreigners who are in the food business think sushi is easy — something anybody can make. That’s why nobody comes to Japan for training. They have absolutely no idea how important prep work is. So they start a sushi place just about anywhere, but can’t make decent sushi. They don’t even understand material. If you give someone a fish and ask them to open it up, they can’t. They’ll try to cut off the head with scissors — that’s how they work. They have no respect for Japanese sushi.
Yoshikazu Ono: We may know sushi. But the customers don’t know what sushi is. If some Asian person is working behind a counter, whether he’s Korean, Chinese or Japanese, customers immediately think that’s sushi. That’s something we felt when we traveled overseas. Customers walk in, eat the terrible stuff and say, “Oh this is sushi.” Oh, but the food is awful, unbelievable. Americans are a group of people who like variety. They’ll point at another sushi bar and say, “You can eat a different kind of sushi there.” They don’t understand the tradition behind sushi.
Jiro Ono: But it’s not just Americans. The same thing applies to the Japanese. The Japanese will watch a sushi chef and think, “Wow that’s cool. I like to cook, I’m going to become a sushi chef.” But this young apprentice has just finished school, has lived at home all his life, and all of a sudden steps into a real kitchen for the first time. He then realizes that it’s not for him. Nine out of 10 are like that. Guys who come straight out of school don’t last. But the other kinds of guys — the ones who have worked as lowly scrubs somewhere else for years — they may last because they’re also thinking, “If I don’t really hunker down and take this seriously, I’m going to end up jobless.” One guy who came in said, “I’m used to hard training. I’ve been on a baseball team.” He didn’t last one week here. That’s how much work it is to prepare sushi. Nobody really knows that. Worst case scenario: You can go to the market, buy a filet of fish, slice that up and lay it on top of a bed of rice.
Kashiba: There are a hundred something sushi places around Seattle. Most of them have prepared fish, pre-cooked egg, pre-boiled shrimp, and they make a lot of money! So easy. Customers don’t know what sushi is, so that’s okay with them.
Customers have to educate themselves about good sushi. Otherwise, lesser chefs can serve the inferior stuff and sell it as sushi to anybody. But if customers learn and say, “Hey, this is not sushi,” then it raises the bar for everyone.
Thus ends part one of the interview as it was original published. Here is part two:
Jiro Ono, proprietor of the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in Ginza, and his son served a mouth-watering array of sushi to us on a rainy spring day in Tokyo. Although I mentioned the menu in part 1 of this interview, it is worth repeating:
Jiro started us off with karei (flounder), followed in rapid succession by sumi ika (squid), inada (baby yellowtail), maguro, chutoro, toro, kohada (marinated shad), awabi (abalone), katsuo (seared bonito) and sayori (saury fish).
Everything was good, but the squid was exquisite. Next he served kuruma ebi (boiled prawn), aji (spanish mackeral), iwashi (sardine), kobashira (yellow clam scallop), akagai (red clam) and a particularly tasty cut of anago (braised sea eel). The next piece was the one Jiro was most proud of: uni (sea urchin). To be frank, I think Shiro and I serve better sea urchin in Seattle all the time. But, of course, the lunch was delicious and memorable. Jiro finished the meal with ikura, shako (sand shrimp) and tamago.
After that feast, which left sushi chef Shiro Kashiba in a cold sweat, we began our roundtable. In part 1, Jiro talked about what it takes to be a good sushi chef (“You have to be always experimenting, always pursuing.”), motivation, stress and the hard road to success (“Guys who come straight out of school don’t last. But the other kinds of guys — the ones who have worked as lowly scrubs somewhere else for years — they may last because they’re also thinking, ‘If I don’t really hunker down and take this seriously, I’m going to end up jobless.’”)
In the second part of our conversation, which stretched on for hours on a rainy spring day, we turned the conversation toward climate change and how it affects sushi. While Jiro, Shiro Kashiba (the other sushi chef present) and I have different opinions about a lot of things in the world of sushi, we all agreed that climate change was having a negative effect on the supply of fresh fish.
Kitamura: How is climate-change affecting fish? I know that kohada used to be available in April, but now you can get it in January …
Jiro Ono: This is not just happening in Tokyo; it’s happening all over the world. Our occupation draws on the changes of the four seasons. Now, it’s a mess. Some fish don’t come out, others do at funny times … We alone cannot do anything about this — it’s a global phenomenon. My book Shunka Shuto (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) will become obsolete! This is a very serious problem. It’s not something that will fix itself in a year or two. They call it global warming, but the root cause of it is humans — we’ve created this problem over the years.
Sayori (halfbeaks) are available now (May), but they are traditionally fish that taper off at the end of January to early February. Right now, katsuo (skipjack) and aji (horse mackerel) should be in season. Halfbeaks should not be available now. The taste itself is not bad, however.
Kitamura: Is there fish that you can no longer serve because the taste has deteriorated?
Jiro Ono: Shako (mantis shrimp) should be large, but now they’re much smaller. We’ve noticed strange changes since, what, three to five years ago? Skipjack tuna is normally available from around mid-April through the end of June. But last year, we were using them from around July through November. We couldn’t use them in April, May or June. If this were years ago, skipjack available in November would’ve been tuna of the worst kind. That’s how much things have changed.
There are 10, 20, 30 types of toppings available for sushi. That means if one is not available, you can use another. Sushi itself will not deteriorate, but the toppings will change. The worst-case scenario is what tasted great 10 years ago may not taste so great anymore. That’s a possibility, but also a hard one to pin down. Taste buds adapt quickly. Even if someone says, “This fish tasted great 10 years ago” that’s just an opinion because you can’t compare the fish anymore. Besides, over a 10-year period, our taste buds will have adapted to the lesser flavor, and we will be unable to detect much of a difference. The change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over a long period of time, and humans will get used to it. So sushi itself is not going to deteriorate.
Kitamura: That said, the effects of climate change are still serious, aren’t they?
Jiro Ono: Yes. We’re in the midst of dramatic changes. The tuna problem is unbelievable. There are no good tuna out there no matter how hard you look.
You may have heard of the tuna of Ohma — they’ve become quite famous. But let’s say we have 300 of them. I can only use maybe one. They are tuna that can be caught off the coast of Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture. It is now considered the best place to catch the best tuna. Years ago, if you caught 300, most would’ve been usable.
Tuna is by far the most worrisome of all problems; you can’t run a sushi business without tuna.
There probably won’t ever be a time when there’s completely no tuna around Japan. If there’s absolutely no tuna available in Japan, then maybe we’ll have to consider using frozen imports. There will be a noticeable difference in quality. But if it’s gradual, the customer won’t be able to tell the difference. That, to me, is a little sad — that people won’t be able to taste the great tuna of yore. Same goes for halibut. The best kind is the blue-eyed halibut, but you can’t find those anymore. I don’t know if they’ve disappeared or what … but their availability has dropped by less than half. It’s not about price anymore; it’s about availability. If it’s available, I don’t care how much it costs — I want it. That’s the situation.
Kitamura: How much is the cost affected by lack of availability?
Jiro Ono: Our cost to prepare one slice of tuna — the most delicious fatty part — is 8,500 yen (about $75). That’s the base price without rice or anything else, just the sliced tuna. (For fatty tuna) you can only use two or so slices in the best section of the belly. We had a 12 million yen ($100,000) tuna — not the belly part but the shoulder. That was about a…300,000 yen ($25,000) deficit for us. So, we can’t run the business on tuna alone. That would bankrupt us. If we buy a 10-kilogram tuna and prepared sushi with it, it would be a 300,000-yen deficit.
Tuna prices have traditionally gone through predictable seasonal fluctuations throughout the year. It’s cheaper during one season, and more expensive in others, but in the end, the prices even out. Nowadays, there’s no such thing as winter or summer for certain types of fish. You can’t find good tuna belly either, just shoulder. So expensive doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. The truth is, tuna was never a profitable topping.
Take kohada as an example. That used to be so inexpensive. Today, they cost about 50,000 yen ($450) a kilogram. You can get about 100 slices out of that, but that’s 500 yen a slice! And since you don’t offer one slice, but two, that’s 1,000 yen for two slices of kohada. Now who would pay 1,000 yen for a serving of kohada?
Kitamura: So why not find some other new material to top the fish? Because of sushi chef pride?
Jiro Ono: No. Because they don’t taste good. Of course, everybody’s thinking about that. And they’re coming out with new stuff. But they fade out quickly. You need quality for lasting impact. Remember radish sprouts? They were in everything years ago. Sprout rolls were everywhere. They swept the nation. There were even times when the grocery stores ran out of them. Today, you don’t see them anywhere. Not a trace. They were never that great to begin with. Just a fad.
Kashiba: Here in Seattle, 20 years behind in sushi, we’re still using them! (laughs)
Soon after that, we said our goodbyes and Shiro and I went back out onto the Ginza, shining with rain, for a final stroll before I caught a bullet train to Kyoto to see my family. It was a once in a lifetime experience to meet Jiro Ono, the teacher of my teacher, and it inspired me because I realized that despite all the tradition and culture that connects sushi to Japan, it has become a global cuisine; the future of sushi will be shaped by skilled chefs from Seattle and Boston and Bangkok as well as Tokyo and Kyoto. I look forward to contributing to that future.