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Publication Date : 28-04-2014
At 88, famous Japanese chef is still in pursuit of perfection
Jiro Ono stands out even in a country known for its strong work ethic.
At the age of 88, when even the most dedicated have put down their tools, the chef is still at his craft, kneading a few hundred pieces of sushi a day for customers who come from across Japan and abroad.
In 2007, Sukiyabashi Jiro, his tiny, reservations-only 10-seater basement shop in the shopping and entertainment district of Ginza, was awarded three stars in the first Michelin Japan guide. Ono has held the Guinness record as the oldest three-Michelin-star chef in the world since.
In 2011, he was the subject of an award-winning documentary named Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, a chronicle of Ono's single-minded pursuit of perfection in his 63 years as a sushi chef.
So, when US President Barack Obama was hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a private dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro last Wednesday, soon after the former arrived for a state visit to Japan, he was being served by a chef at the top of his profession.
But suggest to Ono that he is at the peak of his craft and his answer, consistently articulated in various interviews over the years, has been: "I haven't seen the top yet."
Born on Oct 27, 1925, to poor parents in what is now called Hamamatsu city in Shizuoka prefecture, located about 250km west of Tokyo, Ono embarked on his culinary journey the hard way.
When he was just seven, he was forced to leave home to become a bonded worker-cum-apprentice in the kitchens of a ryotei, or a traditional Japanese restaurant.
He began, like all apprentices during that time, at the bottom - cleaning the floor, washing the dishes and seeing to deliveries from early morning until past midnight. It was not until three years later that he was first allowed to hold a kitchen knife.
"I had no one to turn to, or a home to return to, and if fired from the job, I would have starved to death, so I had to work hard," he has said of his years at the ryotei.
While Ono was allowed to attend school, all he remembered of it was the feeling of being exhausted and falling asleep in class.
Understanding teachers mostly left him alone. However, as he usually failed to do his homework, he was sometimes ordered to stand outside the classroom as punishment, but would then quietly take off and perform his chores at the ryotei instead.
During those years, he received food, clothing and shelter, but no salary or days off. A tiny allowance each day was just about enough to pay for three sweets.
The ryotei, where he stayed until he was 20, was where he developed his strong work ethic.
Ono became a sushi chef at 25, and 14 years later he opened Sukiyabashi Jiro, and became known for his exacting standards - getting the best grains for his rice and establishing a close relationship with vendors at the Tsukiji market, who supply him with the freshest seafood he needs.
Ono practises continuous quality control, tasting the food at almost every stage to ensure that his customers get nothing but the best sushi, often described by reviewers as simple but extremely textured and flavourful.
And like a martial arts expert, he has mastered how to stand and to knead the sushi rice effortlessly such that he does not suffer any back or shoulder aches.
It was only when he suffered a heart attack at 70 that he allowed himself to slow down a little, entrusting his son, Yoshikazu, 54, to make the daily runs to Tsukiji market and to prepare more of the sushi for customers.
Part of Ono's legacy will be his two sons, who began as apprentices at his shop after high school - Yoshikazu will be his eventual successor at the shop in Ginza, while Takashi, 52, started a branch at Roppongi Hills in 2003 at the behest of his father, as one shop can have only one master chef.
The Roppongi Hills outlet already has its own two Michelin stars.
At the flagship outlet - a constant among top sushi restaurant lists in local and international magazines - Ono still makes an effort to personally prepare the sushi for first-time customers and also usually makes some of the 20 pieces of sushi in the standard 30,000 yen (US$293) course per person.
Food critics and customers often assume that Ono's dedication comes from a passion for sushi-making. But his love for sushi is an acquired one.
"I did not set out to be a sushi chef or to open a sushi shop," said Ono, who in 2005 received a government award as a "modern artisan" for displaying outstanding ability in his field.
In fact, Ono has said that he has no particular acumen for cooking, but that when it comes to work, he strives to do his best.
"It is not about being suited to the job, but about how to suit yourself to the job," he said.