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Lunch with David Gelb, director of 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'

March 14, 2012 |  9:30 am

"I'm not an expert at making sushi," says David Gelb, with a pair of chopsticks poised above a plate of tuna sashimi at Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa downtown, "but I'm an expert at eating sushi." 

After filming 150 hours of footage at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the famed Michelin three-star sushi bar in Tokyo's Ginza district, the 28-year-old director of the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" knows a thing or two about nigiri and maki. "I like that the seaweed here is crispy," he says of a toro hand roll, into which he deftly pours a drop or two of soy sauce. 

Gelb's film is set to premiere in Los Angeles on Friday, and he has just returned from its debut in New York. The movie, which showed at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and was bought by Magnolia Pictures, has captured the attention of more than just food lovers, as Gelb has been talking up sushi-porn scenes and the importance of rice preparation on the media circuit. Naturally, the fooderati are drooling.

"I think I was lucky," says Gelb, dressed in a black T-shirt and bright blue Adidas sneakers. "Part of it is that there hasn't been a film about this level of sushi." Although reviews have been mixed, he says the goal was to film something "restrained and elegant" instead of relying on the "reality show kind of camera" usually aimed at food and cooking subjects. "I wanted to show sushi as an art form."

The artist behind the sushi is Jiro Ono, the much-revered octogenarian proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny restaurant that seats 10 next to a subway exit in the basement of a Tokyo office building. "He's a perfectionist in everything that he does, even the way he walks," says Gelb. "Look at his posture."  

An example of Ono's quest for perfection is detailed in the movie through an apprentice's attempts to prepare Ono's tamago, which Gelb says includes a mix of shrimp puree, grated mountain yam, sake and egg, turned into a custard-like cake. The apprentice had to make it more than 200 times -- yes, 200 -- before it met Ono's approval. Tamago "is so misunderstood," Gelb says. "Americans don't appreciate the egg."

But it's the glistening fish that is the showstopper (shot mainly on a Red One digital camera), particularly during an omakase dinner scene of sushi close-ups set to Mozart. Each luscious slice of fish is shot so that the audience can see it settle on a pillow of rice. In front of a row of rapt diners, a baroque piece of hamaguri clam softly droops as a rivulet of sauce follows the curve of one edge. "I didn't get do-overs with the sushi," Gelb says. "With that shallow, delicate focus the margin of error is greater than if I'd used the 'reality show camera.' I knew it was going to be a cornerstone of the film."

Meanwhile, the film's tension centers around the somewhat discomfiting relationship between Ono and his oldest son and heir apparent, Yoshikazu Ono, who's in the position of waiting for Jiro to retire, only to try to fill some very big geta.    

And the Onos' reaction to the film? "Yoshikazu came to the Berlinale" last year for a screening, and "said it was OK. That's the highest approval I would expect." 

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" opens Friday at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

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-- Betty Hallock

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"/Magnolia Pictures

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