I photographed Jiro — of Jiro Dreams of Sushi — and his son back before they had their Michelin stars, way back before they were mythologized by international documentary.
Lucked into the shoot. Was a know-nothing guy: Went knowing nothing. Knew nothing about sushi. Jiro who? Certainly didn’t know anything about food or fish quality, nor how to assess it.
Carried a clunky D70 and a 50mm f1.8 lens. (That became a 75mm lens on the DX sensor’d D70 body.)
Arrived, had a private lunch. Gratis. Jiro served. He was a delight. Stern, but delightful. Patient and jolly. Chatting the whole time. Going into great detail about rice temperature and fish procession. A food critic — Masuhiro Yamamoto, Jiro’s main point of foreign-press interaction — sat alongside giving an extended play-by-play.
I have to confess: I may have eaten curry or a burger right before. Stuffed by belly and ruined my palate. Wouldn’t surprise me now. (Like I said, a Know Nothing Guy.)
Jiro served, pontificated. I ate. Thought: Hmm, not bad, Jiro. Not bad at all. Couldn’t predict or intuit a Michelin star if it hit me in the face.
I ate things I would have never ordered on my own. I didn’t get to choose. Nobody gets to choose at Jiro’s. It’s no exaggeration to say that my understanding of what was edible and what I could stomach expanded greatly, that day.
A small man stood behind me, always behind me, with a little towelette at the ready, wiping down my plate after each piece. Felt odd. Embarrassed for both myself and small man. Very likely was the Egg Man now infamous from the documentary.
After the private lunch I taped a bolt of black fabric to the back of a tiny booth. We sat. The place was small. I think this was the only booth. Otherwise, just counter. Fluorescent lights streaming in from above and from the subway hallway just outside the window. Jiro, his son, Yoshikazu, and one of his disciples, Shiro — who is now famous in Seattle — took turns. Rotated in and of the booth. Talked sushi. Talked fish. Talked climate change. Talked owning a restaurant in the basement of a subway station.
We spoke for hours. Two, I think. Leisurely. Pre-fame style. Shiro’s disciple, another sushi chef, the third generation of this crew, interviewed. I shot. Interjected. Posed them. We laughed a lot, that I remember clearly. Serious men, serious work, but with senses of humor.
We were there because Jiro had just gotten his Living National Treasure award. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I mean, it sounded like a big deal. But Japan has lots of Living National Treasures. Carpenters, potters. I was intrigued less by the sushi and more by the person. Who was this guy? How does one become a living national treasure? What aspect of personality puts you down that path? He seemed sharp, devoted … simple. Chose a simple life, opened a simple shop, made simple sushi as best he could.
Surreal, then, soon after, to see him rise to peak fame.
I never did make it back.
On the way out I asked the son: How much would that lunch have normally cost? He chuckled, said some absurd number. I laughed. I had treated the experience as I tried to treat everything, irrespective of so-called fame. I was present. Respectful. Grateful. Still, I thought: Man, I really should have paid more attention.