What can photographers learn from a sushi chef’s devotion to craft? Part 3

Benjamin Stevens

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Photo by JL Lacar on Unsplash

Welcome to the third and final part of this short series!

Let's begin with some humility.

Humility

As mentioned at the outset, there is nothing glamorous about Sukiyabashi Jiro.

It’s situated in the underground shopping corridor of an office building. There is one, L-shaped counter on one side and a couple of tables on the other.

Reviewers have noted that the mood in the restaurant is subdued and formal.

The decor is low-key. But of course, people aren’t dining there for the ambiance.

The somewhat humble first impressions complement Ono’s preference to honor the past. He chooses to serve sushi in the manner in which it developed during the Edo era.

Edomae-sushi is a type of sushi created by food stall businesses in Tokyo during the 1820s. During this period, refrigeration was non-existent. Fish were caught in the adjacent harbor and then immediately put out for sale.

The tendency for fish to turn easily and the fast-paced lifestyles of workers kept conversation to a minimum and stressed the need for efficiency from start to finish.

Necessity ensured stall-holders made the best use of the ingredients on offer in an environment where sushi didn’t last long in an optimal state.

Ono honors this process today, maintaining the tradition of Edo-style dining and customs. Sushi in this style allows a single ingredient to stand on its own, or at the most be complemented by a small amount of a second ingredient.

In a world where sushi fusion cuisine has exploded in popularity, Ono remains steadfast. He is not trying to reinvent the wheel, choosing instead to gracefully acknowledge (and be inspired by) traditional Japanese sushi culture.

Humility also manifests in the pursuit of excellence. While Jiro maintains a very exclusive eating experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro, he is not too good to eat at conveyor belt sushi chains in his relentless quest for perfection.

I try everything. It is important to constantly research.… If you don’t have an intense focus to get to the next level, the value of your work will diminish. - Jiro Ono

Photographers must also be humble. We can acknowledge those who have gone before us by drawing inspiration from them. We understand there are certain things they have figured out which could save us a lot of time and energy in our progression.

There is no need for photographers to reinvent the wheel. With so many wielding cameras these days, there is a good chance your unique idea is far from revolutionary.

But we can overcome this apparent saturation by adding our own unique flair to some of the inspirational concepts we have picked up along the journey.

Perfectionism

Reviewing Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Roger Ebert said the documentary was a “portrait of tunnel vision” and concluded by remarking on Ono’s tragic pursuit of perfection:

He knows his staff has recently started massaging an octopus for 45 minutes and not half an hour, for example. Does he search a customer’s eyes for a signal that this change has been an improvement? Half an hour of massage was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, I would argue that Ono has absolutely no interest in Michelin stars. Nevertheless, there is a degree of pervasive perfectionism in the film that Ebert has clearly recognized.

The rite of passage for apprentices is one such example. Aspiring sushi chefs are made to perfect seemingly menial tasks such as the wringing out of hot towels before they are allowed anywhere near food preparation.

Indeed, they must work for a decade or more under Ono’s tutelage before they attain the title of shokunin. One particular apprentice in the documentary recalls making the same dish more than 200 times before it was mercifully judged to be of an acceptable standard.

The dish, for the record, was tamago (egg omelette).

Does this level of perfectionism have a place in photography?

I’m not sure that it does.

Perfectionism is often disguised as the pursuit of self-improvement. But to improve, mistakes have to be made and learned from.

Perfectionism is associated with extremely high standards and the pursuit of flawless ideals.

Extremely high standards, by definition, will often be unmet. And for some of us, failing to reach these standards is akin to putting our most authentic, flawed selves in prison and throwing away the key.

Unfortunately, the line between perfectionism and the devotion to craft is a blurry one.

Ono has been making sushi for almost 80 years, but he still feels he hasn’t reached the top of the mountain:

All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection. - Jiro Ono

The point here, of course, is that perfection is impossible to achieve.

To endlessly and mindlessly pursue perfection is to be blinded from the beauty of the present moment.

Perfection may be a metaphor for most people. They might think they need it, but they never really aspire to get there.

Ono, on the other hand, appears to believe that perfection is a tangible thing. This is despite admitting that he can’t define it, much less set a goal for it.

One could argue that his pursuit of perfection might be his craftsman’s spirit. That there is a certain honor in the incremental pursuit of perfection and even if our intuition tells us we’ll never reach the top, we delight in climbing the mountain nonetheless.

But our ascent toward the summit should never come at the cost of living in the present.

Workaholism

By his own admissions, Jiro Ono is a workaholic.

He recounts in the documentary how he was largely absent in bringing up his children. His younger son, Takashi, remembers gazing upon his father during a rare morning sleep-in and asking who the stranger in his house was.

Ono often works through holidays and becomes so easily bored with relaxing that he returns to the restaurant to keep himself occupied.

As amateur or enthusiast photographers, we may easily understand the difference between our craft and our day job. In fact, many aspiring professionals would count themselves lucky if the difference was less clear.

But for Ono, the two are inseparable. His work is his craft and his craft is his work. This arrangement is all he has ever known.

Ono’s alcoholic father left the family when he was 7. Two years later, he was told to leave home and make something of himself.

He eventually landed on his feet, apprenticing at a sushi restaurant. He has now been in the industry for over 80 years.

In a sense, Ono’s perfectionist tendencies and hyper-focused devotion to making sushi are at least partly the results of his less than ideal childhood.

There was no choice for him but to make sushi work. In depression-era Japan, it might have been the difference between eating and not eating.

But in adulthood, Jiro is still working like his much younger self — as if his very survival still depends on him earning a daily paycheque.

This youthful zeal has powered him well into his 90s, even if his body and mind are starting to desert him.

Nevertheless, don’t be so consumed with your work that you neglect your family or forget how to relax. Don’t be a stranger in your own house.

Final thoughts

Photography, like many crafts, rewards devoted and sustained effort. In a sense, kodawari argues that the greatest reward comes from the intrinsic struggle to improve.

But it is not a struggle in the truest sense of the word. It might be better described as a joyful pride in upholding personal standards.

To Ono, this is not an empty platitude but a personal mantra for living.

To relax on one part of the sushi-making process is to relax on the whole process, extinguishing the desire to improve and compromising the quality of the end product.

For photographers, improvement means we strive to practice our craft with integrity and take pride in our achievements — no matter the size.

We’re not focused on reaching a mythical summit. An endpoint where we can put our cameras down, dust our hands off, and say we’ve made it.

No, enjoyment is happily something we get to feel along the whole journey. Enjoyment comes from giving everything we have and being content with the photographs we produce.

Of course, there is no fun or fulfillment in proclaiming we know everything there is to know. A world fully worked out would be a very dull world indeed.

By adopting the craftsman’s spirit, we avoid the pitfalls of perfectionist tendencies that only serve to distract us from the beautiful joy of pursuing photography for its own sake.

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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