At one point while filming Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the decade-old documentary about master sushi chef Jiro Ono and his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, the camera’s focus wasn’t quite sharp enough on a prepared piece of tuna. “So I asked Jiro, ‘Can you put that piece of sushi down again?’” director David Gelb recalled in an interview in 2012. “He said, ‘No, that’s not the same piece of sushi. The sushi has passed its prime. The color and texture of it have now changed because it has already been served.’” Even 10 years later, and in the annals of memory, this is what stands out about Jiro: Ono’s absolute devotion to ensuring every element of every piece of sushi was nothing less than perfect.
Ultimate simplicity leads to purity — that’s how food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto summarizes Ono’s sushi in the film’s first few minutes. As Ono explains in the film, “We can’t buy just any tuna.” To make the best sushi is to source the best fish, brought in by an expert who can instinctually discern the perfect tuna; to procure the best rice, grown by a person similarly committed to rice; to hone the craft to such an extreme that in one scene, apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa — now a respected sushi chef in his own right — explains that he made tamagoyaki more than 200 times before he created one good enough to earn Ono’s approval.
Purity, in this case, is to draw out each element’s essence at its peak, and to put them in harmony for a few sublime moments. It is to believe that this endeavor can, with each new attempt, be better and approximate something truer. Ono is an expert in sushi alone, he claims, putting together the knowledge of other specialists. “All I want to do is make better sushi,” Ono says at another point in the film. “Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I’ve achieved perfection.”
In the milieu of American diners, who readily latched onto Jiro, this search for the perfect and pure was an indicator of the “authenticity” of Jiro’s work, particularly in comparison to the mass-market sushi that was more readily available in the United States. Though “Instagram food” as we now know it hadn’t quite taken hold at the time of Jiro’s release, food trends were skewing in the stunt direction: sushi pizza and the “sushi burrito,” for example. For some American diners, the kind of Edo-style sushi that Ono created appeared as a corrective. The word “authenticity” would be bandied around by both diners and the food media establishment as a value judgment; pursuit of the “authentic” subtly marked a restaurant as superior for its ability to resist trends and concessions and to provide diners with the “real deal” of a cuisine, untouched by globalization and gimmick.
With the ideas of purity in both technique and taste that it championed, the documentary increased American interest in “authentic” sushi. That aforementioned Gelb interview bore the headline: “Is it time to cut bait with mediocre sushi?” In 2013, now-Eater editor Lesley Suter wrote in Los Angeles Magazine of “the Jiro effect,” which had spurred, in her estimation, an “‘authentic” sushi craze.” Indeed, as pricy omakase meals picked up stateside, Gelb told Food Republic in 2015: “As sushi knowledge proliferates, people are willing to pay more for an authentic experience.” With Sukiyabashi Jiro the first sushi restaurant to earn three Michelin stars and Ono’s aplomb as the best sushi chef in the world, he became the figurehead for authentic sushi — a standard to which others were compared. (The restaurant received three stars every year beginning in 2007 until it was removed from the guide in 2019 due to the difficulty of making a reservation.)
Authentic is a descriptor that hinges upon comparison; if one thing is objectively authentic, another isn’t. When used by diners in the U.S. to discuss Ono and his school of sushi, authentic was a callback to a pre-globalization era, before sushi became Americanized and was thus, in the estimation of these diners, degraded. Ono’s perceived authenticity accounts for at least some part of his reverence. As New York University professor Fabio Parasecoli noted in a 2016 article on celebrity chefs, “Jiro’s fame and worldwide recognition, his professionalism, and his unbending discipline place him at a very different level from what is usually called ‘ethnic food.’”
This point highlights the unfair dichotomy in how American diners tend to combine the terms “authentic” and “ethnic.” The “authentic” Japanese food is the expensive kind made by chefs like Ono, while to many diners, the “authentic” Chinese or Mexican food is that which is cheap and hole-in-the-wall. This “hierarchy of taste,” in which Japanese food is seen as more “elite” and able to demand prices closer to French and American cuisine than those of other Asian cultures, is the result of class hierarchy among immigrant groups in the U.S., according to author and professor Krishnendu Ray.
For outsiders, authenticity projected a specific cultural ideal of Japan. “In regards to perceptions of Japanese culture, sushi is commonly recognized as an embodiment of a kind of unchanging, static, and ancient lineage,” sociologist Timothy Clark wrote in a 2017 analysis of elite sushi restaurants in the U.S. With Japanese cuisine having attained a greater respect in the U.S. than other Asian cuisines and elite sushi restaurants playing into this “cultural advantage,” Clark writes that this cultivation of authenticity at these establishments confirms “how sushi is idealized internationally in a way that promotes Japanese culture as traditional and unchanging — even unchangeable.”
Similarly, the dining public’s reverence for Ono’s methods reinforced the idea of a specific, immutable “Japanese way” of doing things. When outsiders fetishize cultural practices like this (see also: Marie Kondo’s brand of minimalism), they can perpetuate exoticizing stereotypes. To see Ono and his food in this way is also to create an objective, stuck-in-time standard around what was — and is still — a singular, subjective, shifting experience. We see this subjectivity even in Jiro, with the pervasive sense that Ono’s son and successor Yoshikazu will struggle to be judged by the standards set by his father, despite learning entirely from him.
Authenticity remains in the parlance, but with increasing skepticism. In 2019, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho listed it among the words they vowed never to use in reviews. Eschewing the way authenticity renders food unchangeable, Ho explained: “But if we’re to assume that food is an art, can’t we allow it to change its shape?” That same year, for this website, Jaya Saxena meditated on the amorphous usage of the word, going from something that denoted specificity and accuracy of cuisine to something more loaded that begat attention and authority for chefs outside a cuisine within the modern food economy. “Like gender, race, and money, authenticity is a social construct — something that we’ve given a certain amount of power to as a society, but that is ultimately ours to define, or to give up on entirely,” Saxena wrote.
Instead of using authenticity as an objective, big-picture dictum — unfairly holding up a takeout sushi joint to the same standard as Sukiyabashi Jiro — perhaps the phrase is most useful when it’s used in terms of the integrity of a singular vision. Despite Ono’s self-acknowledged divergence from masters before him, Parasecoli writes that Ono is “well aware that innovation must take place within very clear boundaries dictated by history and tradition.” Indeed, if there is one thing a viewer can glean from Jiro, it is Ono’s undeniable concern with the proper way of doing things and the pursuit of the distinct truth of what it is he is serving. If we follow Saxena’s idea that authenticity is what we define it to be, then authenticity can be a useful way to define Ono’s work, as long as we understand what it is authentic to.
Is Ono’s work adequately carrying on a particular set of traditions, informed by a particular moment of time in a particular place? Is his sushi the clearest depiction of its components? Is what he presents the truest expression of himself? In those regards, Ono’s food can be meaningfully understood as authentic, distilling an ingredient or exemplifying his particular school of thought. But to expect any other sushi chefs to be considered within the same framework would be folly; they can only be the most authentic to themselves and their sets of intentions and influences.
In Jiro, Ono’s own words point to where authenticity falters as a frame of reference. “The masters said the history of sushi is so long that nothing new can be invented,” Ono says. “They may have mastered their craft, but there’s always room for improvement. I created sushi dishes that never existed back then.” While most people would boil their shrimp and refrigerate it, for example, Ono dreamed up new techniques, like boiling the shrimp a la minute, or massaging octopus for 40 minutes for the ideal texture. It’s clear that even Ono sees where his path is perhaps inauthentic to sushi before it, and as devoted as he is to perfection, even he sees that — with more practice and more time — even his work can be more true.
Lisa Kogawa is a freelance illustrator based in Los Angeles.