Interview: David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi)

Interview: David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi). By Simon Miraudo.

David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi invites us into the intimate restaurant of one of Japan’s finest chefs. There are only nine seats at Jiro Ono’s Sukiyabashi Jiro, and meals start at $300 per person. Thankfully, you need no longer travel to Tokyo and empty the bank account to glimpse the master at work. Gelb’s fine film conveys the entire experience for viewers around the world (with the exception – and it’s a big one – of allowing us to taste the food, obviously). We spoke to David about convincing Jiro to let a camera into his life, his thoughts on competitive cooking shows, and much more.

Check out our review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi here. 

DG: I’m a little under the weather today, so if I sound low energy, please don’t doubt my sincerity.

SM: I trust you. When did you first learn of Jiro Ono?

DG: I had an idea to make a movie about sushi before I knew who Jiro was. It was kind of in the process of interviewing sushi chefs and other chefs about sushi, and they all kind of pointed in the direction of Jiro. “He is the grand master of sushi.” So, I researched him and when I finally had an opportunity to eat there, I was just blown away by how good the sushi was. But also, what an interesting figure he is. I found him to be incredibly inspiring in his philosophy, and I was also intrigued by how small the restaurant is, the fact that his son works for him in the restaurant still, and the legend of Jiro that I thought would make for a compelling film.

SM: Even before that then, what was it about sushi that you wanted to make a film about it?

DG: Well, it’s because I love sushi; I love it. I think that’s the first thing that made me want to set off on this. I’ve always been fascinated by sushi chefs; particularly very still sushi chefs, and the way that they are like this retainer of tradition and vast knowledge that they’ve accumulated from years of experience, and they’re using that to make a meal for you at the bar. I love the relationship between the customer and the sushi chef. If you go to the restaurant a lot, he might give you something special. I’ve always been fascinated with sushi chefs, and I wanted to film them, somewhat selfishly, because I wanted to eat a lot of sushi. So, I was surprised there had never really been a theatrical film about sushi, and about sushi chefs. I’m a big fan of the BBC documentary series Planet Earth, and I also wondered why there hadn’t been food shot in the style of Planet Earth, where the cinematography and the music is important, and the whole thing has a very cinematic feel. I thought this was perfect; making a documentary about sushi in this style is something I very much wanted to see, and I had a hunch others would want to see that as well.

SM: It’s interesting that you mention Planet Earth as an inspiration. Films about cooking are tricky, in the sense that it’s hard to convey taste and smell across a screen. Not impossible, however. Apart from Planet Earth, were there any specific films or TV shows you’d seen that convinced you it could be done?

DG: Not really, it was more like food still photography that inspired me that food can appear delicious. I think that with still photography, because the technique of shooting food on video and film – the most “delicious” that I’d seen – was in advertisements for fast food restaurants, where they take great care in making sure the bun looks perfect and the patty is spray painted the ideal colour, and the whole thing drops perfectly on the plate in these high production value commercials. You know what it is though, when you watch it. It’s not that appetising. The thing with Jiro’s sushi, all I had to do was point the camera at it; using a compelling perspective, using good lenses and guiding the focus to the most delicious part of the sushi. But sushi itself comes out perfect every time from a true master. That was easy. Telling the story was the difficult part. But conveying the beauty of Jiro’s sushi: you need only look at it.

SM: Speaking of Jiro, how did he take to a film being made about him and his restaurant?

DG: I owe a great deal to the food writer, Yasuhiro Yamamoto, who appears in the film as something of a narrator and guide through Jiro’s art. He’s also a very old friend of Jiro’s. I knew that I wanted him to part of the movie, and he convinced Jiro to meet with me, and helped, along with my own conversations with Jiro, convince him that I was going to tell Jiro’s story from Jiro’s perspective as much as I could. I didn’t have really that much of an editorial spin on it. I wanted to tell the story of a man on a quest for perfection, and the world around him, and his family. He felt that I was taking an effort with the language, and he could tell I had a real love for sushi, so he agreed to do it. I’m incredibly grateful.

SM: When it comes to documentary filmmaking, it’s not readily apparent when you’ve got enough footage, or if you’ve even got the right footage. When did you decide it was time to stop shooting?

DG: When we ran out of money. That’s the real, kind of, short answer. What you’re saying is absolutely correct. How do you know you have the whole story? It’s quite a leap of faith, to set out to make a film, because you don’t have a script. You maybe have an idea, after some conversations, about where the movie will go, but you don’t know what the story is going to be exactly. It takes great faith; it requires a leap of faith in your subject, but also your editor. I’m very fortunate to have a fantastic editor who was helping me shape the story even as I was shooting it. I was sending footage back to him while I was shooting the film. We could see the story form as we were shooting it. We shot two separate months. The first month I went out to Japan and I cast a very wide net; shot everything that I could – hours of footage. Then we came back and tried to put the story together. In doing so, I was able to return to Japan six months later with a stronger idea of what the movie was shaping to be, and I was able to shoot much more targeted perspective. At that point, I was able to tell if I had everything that I needed. But I would have loved to stay for a year. There’s so much more that can be told about them. It’s just that Jiro can’t make a single piece of sushi for his whole life. He has to do the best that he can, and he uses that knowledge to improve upon the next one, and that’s what we have to do. Once we hit certain film festivals, we did the best that we could, but there’s always room for improvement, and that’s the most boggling thing about the creative process. You just want to keep working on it forever.

SM: Running out of money is probably a good incentive for finalising a project. There’s been a glut of competitive cooking shows recently. Are you a fan of these?

DG: To be honest, I’m not that much of a fan of the competitive shows. I prefer to see a chef working in a situation he’s cultivated. A lot of the entertainment value from these shows comes from taking a chef and seeing him struggle out of water with ingredients he’s not familiar with. How, with their skills, they’re able to survive in an unfamiliar environment. But what I’m particularly interested in is seeing is a true artist in the world that’s he’s created to support his art. Jiro would never take part in a cooking competition, because part of his skill is his relationships with his fish dealer, and his relationship with his rice dealer, and cultivating these ingredients. Finding the perfect relationship with them and these people has taken decades. If you worked without that, you’re at a major disadvantage.

SM: It’s hard to disagree with that. Can you tell me what you’re working on next?

DG: I’m working on a food series. Jiro is the living legend of sushi, but there are other people also with compelling stories, and I would love to tell their stories as well and kind of branch out. Beyond that I’m also working on a narrative fictional film about a murder mystery set in New York City where I grew up. I love documentaries, but I love all storytelling.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is now showing in select cinemas across Australia. Check out our review here. 

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