David Gelb went halfway around the globe to make his first feature, a documentary about master chef Jiro Ono, whose 10-seat Tokyo restaurant boasts three Michelin stars. But in a way, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which opened in Washington on Friday, is a homecoming.
“My parents took me to Japan for the first time when I was 2 years old,” Gelb said by phone from Los Angeles.
That was in 1985, when the filmmaker’s father, Peter Gelb, was assistant manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Its music director at the time was Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, and the orchestra performed in Japan frequently.
“I would come along with my mom, as well,” the filmmaker said. “So I started eating cucumber rolls when I was 2 years old.”
Sukiyabashi Jiro, which has a tiny space in the basement of a Ginza office building, does not serve cucumber or any other kind of roll (“maki” in Japanese).
“Real sushi chefs don’t even see that as sushi,” Gelb said. “It’s a whole different category of food.”
The restaurant charges about $300 for 20 pieces of nigiri, which balance toppings (usually but not always raw fish) on hand-shaped lumps of delicately flavored rice. Each of the 20 pieces in a course is different.
“It’s just an incredibly satisfying and thrilling sensation to eat a perfectly balanced piece of sushi,” said Gelb, who admitted to a squalid past in which he regularly ate low-grade sushi. “After working on this film, I began to realize that the true art of sushi lies in these high-end restaurants. So now I go maybe once a month, but I pay five times as much.”
Like many high-end Japanese businesses, Sukiyabashi Jiro didn’t encourage non-Japanese patrons.
“Originally, Jiro didn’t really like foreign customers that much,” Gelb said, “because they didn’t know that much about sushi.”
Since Michelin published its first guide to Tokyo eateries in 2008, however, Ono now “loves to show foreigners the potential of sushi,” Gelb said. “If people are willing to come to the restaurant and try sushi his way, he’s always glad to have them.”
Sushi made Ono’s way is the essential subject of Gelb’s documentary, which was filmed mostly in Sukiyabashi Jiro. (There are side trips to a spinoff location and to Tokyo’s massive Tsukiji fish market, as well as to a reunion of Ono’s childhood friends.) Ono and his apprentices, who include middle-aged sons Yoshikazu and Takashi, demonstrate everything from making egg custard to massaging octopus flesh to make it tender.
Originally, Gelb planned “a movie about sushi, in all of its different forms.” Then he was introduced to Ono by a Tokyo food critic, Masuhiro Yamamoto.
“Everything that I wanted to convey about sushi could easily be presented from Jiro’s perspective,” the director said.
The film became more personal when it came to focus on Ono, who was 85 when the movie was shot in 2010, and older son Yoshikazu, who will someday inherit the business.
“It’s a human story, set in the world of sushi,” Gelb said.
The director never filmed when the restaurant was in operation, although he does include one scene in which Jiro prepares a meal for invited guests. Rather than emphasize the bustle of the restaurant business, Gelb highlights Ono’s craftsmanship. The depiction of the chef’s work and outlook is surprisingly intimate, especially since it was accomplished through translators. (Gelb described his Japanese as “poor.”)
Gelb prepared the translators with the topics and questions to be covered and did pre-interviews with Ono and his staff.
“The first few days of the production, I didn’t even bring the camera with me,” Gelb said. “This was just so they could get used to me being around.”
The filmmaker also enlisted Yamamoto to ask some of the questions.
“I knew that their rapport, and their history together, would bring out more candid answers from Jiro,” Gelb said.
“If we missed something,” Gelb added, “we would shoot another interview, until we got it right. That’s something we kind of picked up from Jiro. Keep doing it over and over again until it’s right.”
The director owes more than a taste for sushi to his father, now the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The elder Gelb, who has produced numerous TV shows and documentaries about classical music and musicians, indirectly introduced his son to filmmaking. And, of course, to classical music. But the use of compositions by Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Philip Glass in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is not simply a matter of personal taste.
“It was all about elevating the elements of the movie to [Ono’s] level as much as possible,” Gelb said. “The way that Philip Glass’s music is repetitive but always building on itself and escalating — Jiro’s work ethic is sort of analogous to that. He is doing the same routine every day and looking for that one step of improvement.”
Ono’s “whole ethos is about mastery of simplicity,” Gelb said. “So we don’t use any sort of graphics, or any special effects in the film, beyond speeding things up and slowing them down. It’s just a very simple movie, with elegant camera work and music. We want the film to feel like a movie that Jiro would make, if he were a filmmaker. Just very simple and pretty. But deep at the same time.”
So Ono’s sushi is a metaphor for the director’s approach to filmmaking?
“I see his philosophy,” Gelb said, “as a metaphor for everything.”
(PG, 81 minutes) opens Friday
at Landmark E Street Cinema.