Numerous films focusing on Japanese cooking or chefs have been released to Western audiences.

One of the more recent iconic and celebrated is David Gelb’s 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The movie reviews the work (and to a lesser extent the life) of Jiro Ono, a humble and modest 85-year old Tokyo based sushi master chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, his ten seat restaurant (that once held the distinction of earning three stars from the famed MICHELIN review guide).

Although more then a decade has passed since the movie’s release, what makes this film interesting? Lots of things.

For sushi lovers there are copious shots of Jiro and his team carefully preparing sushi, and placing these creations on plates. To a lesser extent rarely seen sushi preparation practices like smoking fish with straw and treating nori over propane flame are shown to the audience. We also witness scenes from the early morning fish auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market where Jiro and other Tokyo based chefs inspect the fish and seafood, and then buy the food they are going to serve that day. Interviews with his primary fish monger (Mizutani Takashi) and rice dealer (i.e., Hiromichi) are also part of this dynamic.

Over the course of 80 minutes viewers are introduced to Jiro, who has devoted the majority of his life to perfecting his craft of making sushi, and to a lesser extent his grueling training of others (in particular his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi) in the fine art of sushi making. We briefly learn about his father, and the unusual upbringing he had. In particular, at the age of nine he was abandoned by his father, and started working in a sushi restaurant to support himself.

Unquestionably both the movie and the main character have some flaws.

• It may have been helpful if there were a sprinkling of interviews with other sushi chefs (i.e., his competition) or customers. This may have provided an additional sense of balance to the story. Instead Gelb appears content to give a rather complimentary examination of Jiro and his practice. Thus, the film can be easily construed as a sophisticated tribute or commercial.

• The film neither mentions his wife, nor considers the struggles his sons made in choosing to follow their father’s footsteps.We learn that despite his sons wanting to either go to university or be an airplane pilot, Jiro convinced them otherwise to join him at his restaurant. Moreover no mention is made of his wife. We don’t know if she is widowed, divorced, etc.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi does not consider how the protagonist’s obsession (spending every waking hour of his life thinking about sushi) effects his family life.

• Although the film states that Jiro pioneered new techniques in the preparation of sushi and rice, it does not provide specific details. We also do not see any in-depth reflections from his mentors, etc.

Much like a well designed and prepared meal, however, the story is beautifully told. There is a balance, if not harmony, among the content, interviews, visuals, dialogue and music, focusing not just on Jiro, but his sons, his apprentices (shokunin deshi, in Japanese) and Yamamoto Masuhiro, a well-known and respected Tokyo based restaurant reviewer. There is also some social commentary towards the end of the film that deals with the challenge of overfishing.

The success of this movie may lie in the zeitgist of the decade in which it was release. Building upon Robert M. Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance (1974), through Matthew B Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009), we learn about the pleasure of working with one’s hands. Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), we learn what it takes to devote one’s self to one’s career.

It is hard to say that making sushi was Jiro’s calling, but he has put his heart and soul in to the practice of this Japanese culinary practice, and this seems to be where not only he made a living but derived a considerable amount of enjoyment doing this sort of thing. Key takeaways are

1. In priniciple, over time, and with sufficient dedication you get better at your craft.

2. Have high standards. For Jiro, this includes selecting and using high quality raw ingredients, the proper use of tools, and the manner in which the fish is cut, rice is prepared, etc. and served on the plates.

2. See yourself as a professional and elevate your craft.

3. Develop mastery in a profession, take time and an almost obsessive compulsion perfecting your craft.

4. Understand that you need to serve as an apprentice (itame in Japanese) first, and only after sufficient training, can one become a master skilled sushi chef (itame-san, in Japanese).

5. After you have become a master, pay it forward by taking on apprentices.

These lessons are generalizable to many jobs, professions and careers. The benefit are not necessarily financial but they do enable a sense of commitment, purpose and satisfaction.

On-line reviewer platforms, restaurants, and the privileging of mediocrity

Over the past 13 years a number of on-line review platforms like Google Maps, TripAdvisor, and Yelp have been launched that enable individuals to make decisions about restaurants to patronize.

Although the results produced by these relatively convenient user-generated content websites and apps reduce readers costs of acquiring information, and can warn them about really bad dining establishments (not to mention accommodations, mechanics, florists, etc.), the results and interpretation of them often favors mediocre places rising to the top.

How so? Other than an ability to navigate the websites or apps, most people who post the reviews don’t have any formally recognized expertise about culinary practices, food preparation and cuisines, but are still free to pontificate about things they know little or nothing about. They can include reviewers who have an axe to grind, like being upset that they never got a reservation. Reviews may also be fake, generated by the establishments themselves, etc.

Moreover, informing readers that the food was tasty, or that the waiter or waitress was rude, tells the reader very little about the quality of the food served by these potential targets of consumption.

User generated content websites, more specifically the reviews they produce, are built upon the “wisdom of crowds.” On the surface this process appears to be fair, but we also know that crowds don’t always make good decisions or ones that are genuinely in their best interests. In fact, in matters of taste, crowds can be quite foolish. And there is what is referred to as the lowest common denominator effect.

Making it to the top of the an on-line review platform list often means that restaurants, etc. were able to satisfy the average reviewer. The result is that popular and middle of the road places get elevated and niche and unusual establishments get crowded out.

More specifically, restaurants that want to provide food that is authentic (i.e., fidelity to a recipe or cuisine), creative, and/or interesting often garner fewer and more negative reviews. Because of this trend many truly exceptional restaurants may be ignored or down listed by these on-line review websites.

For example, I’ve lived in Washington DC for close to three decades and consider myself relatively knowledgeable about most of the “top” restaurants here. But my own personal list of favorite restaurants don’t come close to matching those generated the aggregated rankings present on Google Maps, TripAdvisor, or Yelp.

How then do patrons solve the dilemma of finding a good restaurant?

To begin with they need to be more skeptical of on-line reviews. Don’t just read the first few reviews of a restaurant. Critically interpret both the good and bad reviews. Look for nuance and bias.

Another solution is to seek out alternative sources of information. Although we can ask friends and family for recommendations, there is no guarantee that their tastes and opinions will match ours

We can also consult travel guides, professional restaurant critics, and we can pop our heads into these places and take chances. We can also triangulate this information to make better situations.

Unquestionably, consulting different sources of information can be quite resource intensive. If all you want is a mediocre place to eat and sleep then I say go for it. But if you want something different and perhaps authentic then you need to put in the work.

Photo credit:

Tom Driggers
“Sweet or Unsweet?”

Cities must prioritize the provision of accessible, well-maintained, and secure public restrooms

Big cities suffer from numerous problems. One intractable and long-standing challenge has been a failure to provide residents, commuters, and tourists with adequate places to go to the bathroom.

From mothers with children in tow, to the burgeoning homeless population, this state of affairs presents an intractable inconvenience.

For example, few urban public transportation systems have public bathrooms located at their stops, stations, and major terminals.

Nonresidents, needing to go to use a restroom, are often forced to find a commercial location, like a restaurant, a fast food place, retail establishment, or a gas station to do their duty.

But even these locations pose their own set of problems. Sometimes the facilities are only available to customers, and/or you need a code. Often the bathrooms are out of order, and occasionally they’re disgustingly dirty making the user wonder if the experience would have been better if they would have held it in longer in order to find a more suitable place to relieve themselves. Meanwhile many establishments deny service to their bathrooms to homeless and mentally ill people who sometimes use these venues as places to wash up, or temporarily camp out in. That’s why so many people end up resorting to doing their business in a nearby back alley or behind a bush. This practice may be so normative, in some neighborhoods, that it is part of the street culture.

Additionally, go to selected parts of almost any big city in the world, especially during the hot summer months, and you’re likely to pass by areas where the smell of urine is prominent and almost overpowering.

Feces (whether they are human or animal) and urine attract flies, other insects and rodents that feed off of them. A pest control professional once told me shit is to rodents as steak is to humans.

Parts of the city where there are high levels of urine and feces are undesirable to live, work and pass through. Though difficult to prove, this situation is bound to have an economic effect on property values and the viability of businesses to thrive.

Live long enough in an area (or work close by) and you’ll learn the places where you can use a free public bathroom. And there are probably a handful of apps that one can use but if you’re homeless, the likelihood of you owning a smart phone to access that app is probably pretty low.

In many respects states, in particular their highway systems, have done a better job than municipalities and county governments, providing restroom facilities for motorists and their passengers who just gotta go. Some even have fast food restaurants located inside the structure, and others don’t.

Moving on, there are probably five major strategies that municipal governments can take to increase the provision of well-maintained and secure public restrooms.

First, while cities are developing new policies, practices and legislation in this area, they should install more portable toilets in public areas.

Second, if financially viable, municipalities should consider installing either portable or low cost/low maintenance toilets in abandoned buildings and structures.

Third, urban governments should take advantage of innovative designs that some cities around the world have adopted for self-cleaning and low maintenance public toilets.

Fourth, more taxpayer money needs to be allocated to this problem. This will require re prioritizing annual budgets devoted to this urban challenge either through a single line item in an annual budget or greater scrutiny of the subagencies that provide this kind of service. Part of this initiative should include insuring that urban parks that fall above a certain size have a well maintained and secure public bathroom.

Finally, similar to the approach adopted by the federal government, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, cities should mandate that all newly constructed office buildings should have a well maintained and secure public bathroom on their first floor, that does not require going through a security gate just to use. This could include a tax break or other incentive to force property developers to comply.

These are just a handful of solutions to a long standing problem that is not simply an inconvenience but has social and economic implications too.

Photo credit:
Photographer: Jesse Steele
Title: Public Restrooms