A great sushi chef hangs up his knife, but a better one persists

February 29, 2012 • 9:23 am

According to today’s New York Times, the famous sushi chef Kazunori Nowaza is retiring at age 66.  He plied his trade at a restaurant called Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, California, which closes today.

When I was younger the thought of raw fish made me gag, but somehow I’ve grown to love it over the years. It’s an acquired, adult taste, like beer or hot dogs with mustard (in many places in Chicago they won’t even let you put ketchup on your dog).

But let’s investigate another sushi restaurant, perhaps the world’s most famous one. It’s a small, ten-seat restaurant located underground at a Tokyo subway stop, and is called called Sukiyayabashi Jiro.  The owner, Jiro Ono, is 85, and is still at it.

Jiro was called the “best sushi chef in the world” by Anthony Bourdain, and his hole-in-the-wall has three Michelin stars. Here’s Bourdain’s visit as shown on his show No Reservations:

$300 a pop, and the meal is short, but I’d love to go!

They’ve just released a documentary about the owner called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” and it’s supposed to be pretty good.  Here’s part of a review at the Hollywood Reporter:

Shooting mostly in the 10-seater basement restaurant Sukiyayabashi Jiro (whose menu starts at around $300 minimum) in Ginza, the feature itself is largely squashed inside the chef’s small, meticulously routine world. Interviews with Jiro, his sons, his apprentices and food critics concur on his perfectionist attitude — not surprising if one is familiar with Japanese reverence for “shokunin” (artisan’s) dedicated work ethic.

Still, the lengths Jiro takes to maintain and improve his standards — from never taking a day off except to go to funerals, to massaging an octopus for 50 minutes, to customizing plate layout for left-handed customers — have their amusement value. Conversations with his sons Yoshikazu and Takashi elicit sympathy for the pressure one would expect they’re under to sustain the restaurant’s reputation in the long term. The most touching anecdote comes from an apprentice’s account of how he wept when Jiro finally gave his approval to his egg dish after rejecting the previous 200 he made.

And here’s the trailer:

Finally, there’s a report of a foodie’s visit (with luscious photos) from the website A Life Worth Eating. A few morsels from the website:

The chef, Jiro Ono

44 thoughts on “A great sushi chef hangs up his knife, but a better one persists

  1. $300 a pop, and the meal is short, but I’d love to go!

    Yeah, and if you run into me, don’t hesitate to scalp your reservation. Of all the things for which people are willing to pay top dollar, the best sushi in the world is the one I would go for.

  2. No mustard on Chicago hot dogs? Yellow mustard is one of the standard condiments on the canonical Chicago-style hot dog. What’s excluded from a Chicago dog is ketchup. I’ve never seen a place that includes ketchup by default, and I’ve read that some won’t even give it to you if you ask. Ketchup is the no-go condiment in Chicago.

  3. I remember that episode of Anthony Bourdain, mostly because I felt vindicated that eating sushi with your fingers (and without any soy, wasabi, or gari) is proper.

    1. It may be proper to eat sushi plain, but *nothing* compliments sushi better than a soy/wasabi mix. And with fingers? Have fun… I’ll stick with my chopsticks.

      Besides… what the hell is “proper”? Why do we have to have “proper” ways to eat food? What’s up with that? Seems rather ethnocentric if you ask me… :p

      Side note…

      In most places (at least here in the states), the wasabi isn’t real… it’s actually horseradish with mustard and green food coloring. Actual wasabi is rare and very expensive ($70 to $100 a pound [of the whole root, that is]), and it’s not quite as hot as the horseradish/mustard/green-coloring mix.

      I only ever had it once, in a rather expensive sushi place in New York (we were treated by a family friend). I actually prefer the fake mix, both because of its cheap cost and the fact that it’s usually spicier. But when I can get actual wasabi, I go for it without hesitation.

  4. I’ve had a lot of sushi/sashimi (hereafter sushi for short) all around the world (except Japan itself, alas) including at Honda Ya in Tustin, CA (our small group was the only one in the place not both Japanese and speaking Japanese). And I like sushi, OK, … sort-of, … pretty well. (And there’s nothing about it that puts me off: I slurp raw oysters and nosh extremely stinky cheese (it burns your lips it has so much ammonia and/or smells exactly like a pit toilet), heart, other organs, caviar, whatever, nothing puts me off that way). But … the flavor just doesn’t do it for me.

    I prefer my fish cooked, thank you very much.

    I do love raw oysters; but I also love them cooked. I am a thorough-going ichthyvore; but cooked, please, cooked.

    And, rarely with any other kind of food have I felt so hungry right after a meal as with sushi. So much money for so amazingly little (flavor or nourishment).

    I’ve given sushi a really serious go. Not my thing. (And I have to say, for me, Japanese food trails far behind: Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian …, which are all favorites.)

    1. I should not have given molluscs short shrift: I love them too, including all cephalopds that have been placed before me.

    1. Regretably, I’ve never had abalone. I lived 20 years in the Pacific NW; but by the time I got there, the abalone was so fished out … Some friends would snorkle for it (in dry suits!); but I was never along when they got any!

  5. As I recall, on occasion hanging out in downtown Detroit, as well as some back-alley neighborhoods in the late 50’s early 60’s, hot dog push carts were fairly ubiquitous around nightfall, which sold what were referred to as Coney Island’s, dog-hots or chili dogs, which were hotdogs with mustard, chili, and chopped onions, and yes, no ketchup.

    Why hang out there, you might ask? Well for one, usually on a Friday or Saturday night, I’d sit in a parked car with three other guys, two blacks and one white, and while having a beer, usually a Pfeiffer’s GIQ (giant Imperial quart), we’d run the gamut of Do-Wop songs of that era and impersonate them as best we could.

    We would take on the Platters, Del Vikings or Little Richard, and as the beer was ingested, the vocalizing got better. I generally did lead or baritone backup vocals, and as I recall, Adolf Boswell’s bass notes would actually cause my loose passenger window to rattle a bit in its mounting. And when a bottle was empty, it served as the clave sound for ‘Little Darlin’.

    But anyway, at nite’s end came the chili dogs. Loved ’em.

  6. An ichthyologist friend of mine has become a fugu sashimi addict after a messy divorce. Before, he couldn’t stand the taste of fish. (Don’t even ask…)

    After his divorce, he availed himself of a scientific convention in Osaka to take a tour of fugu restaurants. He called it ‘alimony roulette’. Now it’s become a fixture, repeated every other year. “The only gourmet extravaganza both my ex and myself are looking forward to with trepidation,” he says. Go figure.

    1. I took one for personal education. I still eat sushi like it’s going to save my life… if I only eat more… and more… and more…

      (Nothing is wrong me… I swear…


    2. Why not? If you freeze the fish before, there should be no surviving parasites, I take it. (I checked: 3 days in – 18 degC should do it.)

      1. Ah, but apparently some people have a strong allergic reaction to the worm protein, even after freezing. Having worked on parasites myself, and hung out with a lot of parasitologists, I pass on most sushi and other raw fish dishes like ceviche, though I suppose the real chance of getting infested is small. I have a T-shirt from the American Society of Parasitologists with the Anisakis life cycle on it and the caption “If you knew sushi like I know sushi . . . “

  7. Yes, all quaintly traditional and aesthetically pleasing, I suppose. But bear in mind that bluefin tuna are being fished to extinction so that the Japanese can continue to enjoy those $300 a pop dishes.

  8. Difficult to find really good sushi places in the front range. (do NOT try it yourself, unless you know where to get flash-frozen fish. Every sushi bar around here gets theirs from the Denver market in Japanese Square.) Maybe once or twice a year I make the excursion to get the raw goods and make it here at home. I even built the kitchen to accommodate the events.

    The best here in Colorado Springs hands down, has got to be Shinji’s. Great guy – known him for nearly 20 years. Just ask him what he thinks is really good, and let him do the rest.

    If you really want giant-assed California / Denver rolls, he’ll do that for you as well, but at heart, he’s really old school and top notch.

    1. You’ve *obviously* never had hot dogs in the south.

      Also… never have a hot dog unless its kosher… at least them you know what it’s made out of… 😀

  9. Wait…

    “When I was younger the thought of raw fish made me gag, but somehow I’ve grown to love it over the years. It’s an acquired, adult taste, like beer or hot dogs with mustard (in many places in Chicago they won’t even let you put ketchup on your dog).”

    Sushi is an adult taste? But I’ve been scarfing it down since I was 13!

    I’m 24 now… and I’m *still* not an adult! I think you may wanna recheck your facts there, Jerry…

    😀 😉

  10. I was once taken by a local to a sushi restaurant near Madison, NJ (New JOISEY!) that was popular with the then governor Christine Whitman. It was a small, basement place where local families had personal chopsticks and saki stored.

    I was instructed to sit at the bar and eat whatever came my way; my friend knew the sushi chef. The chef prepared large platters for the diners and made a few extra for us, like giving table scraps to a pet dog.

    Best. Meal. Ever.

    Have no idea what I ate.

  11. The only problem with eating a meal like this is that you’re ruined for regular sushi afterwards. I love sushi and we get some quite good sushi in Melbourne. I go to Suzeran. I do like soy and wasabi (however fake) though, and I must have ginger.

  12. When I was younger the thought of raw fish made me gag, but somehow I’ve grown to love it over the years. It’s an acquired, adult taste, like beer or hot dogs with mustard (in many places in Chicago they won’t even let you put ketchup on your dog).

    I feel it is the reverse, cooked fish made me gag while I loved fresh sashimi from the start.

    And I have never looked back either, cooked fish is still terribly “fishy” as a taste.

    1. Torbjörn: Are you Norwegian?

      What I love are all the kinds of herring (sil) available in Scandinavia, especially Norway. All we get here is one type, and I like it; but it’s nothing like the variety and quality in Norway.

  13. “$300 a pop, and the meal is short, but I’d love to go!”

    Among min-maxers, this would be termed “diminishing returns”.

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