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Sushi, according to documentary filmmaker David Gelb, is "a delicious combination" of fish and rice.
Peggi Whiting, owner of the Salt Lake City sushi-maker HayaiZushi, said sushi is popular because "it's good, and it's a straight protein/carbohydrate. It is a brain food, and energy food. Once you start eating it, you start craving it."
Eating it can also be an experience. "I think people love the idea of a custom meal being served by a chef right in front of your eyes," Gelb said.
For some, though, sushi is an art form and Gelb captures the work of one of sushi's most renowned artists in a new documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which opens Friday, May 4, in Salt Lake City.
Gelb said he had a simple goal in making a movie about sushi. "I just love sushi," Gelb said in a phone interview. "I thought it would be the best way to make it my job to eat the best sushi in the world."
Then Gelb encountered Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi chef proclaimed as one of the world's best. "I realized I could make a movie about more than just sushi," he said.
Jiro is the chef and owner of a sushi restaurant near a subway stop in Tokyo's Ginza district. Despite its unassuming location, the restaurant has received the coveted three stars in the Michelin Guide, and reservations must be made a month in advance.
Jiro imparts his philosophy of hard work and determination, while also demonstrating the techniques of sushi-making. It's notoriously difficult to make, at least to Jiro's standards, with apprentices laboring for 10 years to learn to make sushi his way.
A fair number of Tokyo sushi chefs were trained either by Jiro or his disciples, Gelb said, and still more emulate Jiro's style. Among Jiro's innovations is to serve a sushi-only menu no appetizers or desserts. He also serves custom-made pieces for each customer and, in the film, tells a customer that he makes the women's portions a little thinner than the men's pieces.
"I thought this [movie] would be about his quest for perfection," Gelb said. "It became more and more about his family, and where he came from."
Much of Gelb's film centers on Jiro's two sons. The older son, Yoshikazu, is in charge of his father's kitchen and "lives in his shadow," Gelb said. The younger son, Takashi, apprenticed for his father and then opened his own restaurant in Tokyo's Roppongi district.
The film dispels two misconceptions about sushi. One is "this idea that it's just fish and rice, and it's relatively easy to make," Gelb said. "In fact, the preparation of each fish is incredibly rigorous."
The other misconception is that the fish is the most important ingredient. "The rice is just as important as the fish," Gelb said, adding that Jiro has worked for decades to find the right type of rice, and develop a way to cook it at the right pressure and then serve it at the right temperature which isn't chilled, as some people serve it, but at the temperature of the human body.
The popularity of sushi may also be its eventual undoing, though. Gelb follows Yoshikazu into the fish market (Jiro, because of his health, doesn't go anymore), where the available fish aren't as good as they used to be because of overfishing.
"It used to be a niche product," Gelb said. "Now everybody loves it. I often tell people that maybe we shouldn't eat it so often. When we do, we should save up and eat it as a delicacy."
Ironically, Gelb said his favorite type of Jiro's sushi doesn't have fish. It's a grilled egg custard that's so fiendishly difficult to make that it's the last thing his apprentices are allowed to attempt and when they do, it takes dozens and sometimes hundreds of tries to get right.
"I love the egg … because not only is it delicious, but I've seen how hard it is to make," Gelb said. "It's delicious and it's also emotional to eat."
'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'
The documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" opens Friday, May 4, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.