Excellence in Your Craft: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Scott Francis
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If you are looking for a role model for excellence in one’s craft, look no further than Jiro Dreams of Sushi– a fantastic film (Japanese, with subtitles).  I just saw it tonight and I couldn’t have been more impressed with both the movie and the people in it.  The official site says:
 JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is the story of 85 year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar.
While the film dwells much on the sons of Jiro, not just Jiro himself, there is much to admire about how the three of them have dedicated themselves to their craft.  It is several stories in one:
  1. A personal story of Jiro’s relationship to his family (parents) and his sons.
  2. A professional story of a small sushi shop (10 seats!) becoming a 3 star Michelin restaurant
  3. An educational story about suhi
  4. A process story about improvement
Paraphrasing, Jiro, and his son, Yoshikazu, both explain the philosophy:  It is about doing the same thing, every day, always looking to improve, to perfect, to practice.  Jiro at one point says his son is well on his way to being a great sushi chef – all he has to do is dedicate the rest of his life to it. From a process perspective, there’s much to take away from this movie: Focusing on Failure Modes:
  1. The inputs are carefully chosen.  And the inputs are bought from the best specialists in each fish (each specific fish, mind you), and only the best rice is used.  One of their vendors says his technique is simple:  he buys only the best fish for sale that day.  If he can’t buy that particular fish, he buys nothing.  He means it. If there are 10 tunas, only one is the best. That’s the only one he’ll buy.  This is the kind of specialization Jiro is investing in.
  2. Manual (human) tasks are practiced hundreds to thousands of times, over months or years before the end-result is served to a customer.  This practice eliminates much of the human error.
Measurement:
  1. Tasting is frequent.  They want to make sure every single dish tastes right before customers are served the food.  If it isn’t right – they don’t serve that dish.  Critical, direct feedback is given at each tasting, so that the person responsible for preparation can learn and improve.
  2. They eat a lot of high quality food to develop their own palate and discernment.  They need to be able to have a better sense of taste and smell than their customers (“otherwise, how will we impress them with our sushi?”)
Process Improvement:
  1. The rice cooking process may be unique (even for Japan) in terms of the quality of the rice they buy, and in terms of the pressure applied when cooking the rice.
  2. Octopus is massaged for 40-50 minutes (trust me, our local sushi restaurants are not doing this!)
  3. Despite micromanaging the process, there are significant signs that Jiro has delegated a vast amount of work – as well as the culture of discipline and love of craft.  Its quite fascinating to watch it unfold.
If you think you’ve dedicated yourself to your craft, watch this movie.  Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hours of practice don’t even come close to Jiro’s 75 years in his craft.  

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