A review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), Three Stars (2012), A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt (2011)
In the beginning, Jiro Ono wistfully asks “What defines deliciousness?” At first, it might seem strange for one of the most distinguished chefs alive to ask such a thing. Would we not expect a world-renowned chef to have come into fame for being able to provide the undisputable answer? Given that the cheapest lunch at Jiro’s modest, Tokyo subway restaurant starts is nearly four hundred dollars, it seems as though the rich, huddled masses, yearning to eat well, would have come to him with the same question on their hungry lips. And yet this is not the case— not for Jiro, and not for a host of other top-rated chefs, who are subjects in several recent documentaries.
The title of Lutz Hachmeister’s Three Stars refers to the highest rating given by the Michelin Red Guide, an annually published guide to hotels and restaurants which dates back to 1900. Michelin critiques are famously exacting; in America, only ten restaurants currently have a three star rating, and in the whole of the United Kingdom, only four. Japan has three dozen, France has twenty-six, and there are not many more than a hundred total in all the world. Obtaining all three Michelin stars is a Herculean labor to which many young chefs devote their entire lives, and perhaps their souls, as well. Late in Three Stars, Hachmeister asks a few of his subjects to reflect on the death of one Bernard Loiseau, a three star chef who took his own life in 2003 after rumors emerged that a subsequent edition of the Michelin Guide had lowered him to two stars. While his death is universally acknowledged a tragedy, I don’t remember anyone calling it “senseless.”
Perhaps what makes the mythic three star rating so striking is the dearth of information provided by Michelin as to what it takes to get it. One star means excellent, two means worth a detour, and three stars means worth travel. The standard is curiously vaporous, subjective. Michelin critics arrive anonymously, and if a chef wants to know why his restaurant failed to achieve stars, he must travel to France and read personal correspondence sent by the critic to the company. Jean-Luc Naret, former general director of the Michelin Guide, appears every now and again to deliver a few benign, uninteresting words about the institution; with tightly slicked hair, gorgeous suit, no tie and a different hand gesture for each syllable he speaks, Naret comes across like a politician, someone hiding the real story and giving only vagaries, perhaps intentionally to arouse our suspicion. And yet it is this vague, vaporous quality of the Michelin stars which yields not only a cornucopia of interpretations, but also stokes the imaginative fire of each chef.
We see French chef Yannick Alléno spends several hours driving back and forth to a watercress farm which looked no larger than an acre. He purchases the stuff and drives back to the restaurant. One ingredient down, an entire morning gone. Chef Hidecki Ishikawa puts a dollop of black sauce on the center of his palm, then licks it off to see if it is good enough. Why not on a spoon? Right hand versus left? The viewer is left with the happy possibility of guessing for hours. Chef Olivier Roellinger walks along a deserted beach in Brittany, climbs between rocks and pulls what appears to be nothing more than weeds. After tasting, he says, “That’s between fish and mango,” and then a few feet farther down, he plucks another weed, bites the end off, and says, “This is sea beet. It produces a lot of saliva.” A few feet down, a little flower. For a moment, it seems Roellinger might gloss the entire beach. Does every green shoot the world over have some hidden gastronomic potential which is simply unknown and destroyed by the uninitiated mower of lawns? The mysterious demands of the Michelin critics drive chefs out into the strange nooks and unexplored crannies of the earth, hoping to satisfy a mystery with a greater mystery. Christ places in ten thousand places, but the Michelin chefs seem hopeful the ten- thousand-and-first place holds a double blessing. An eight foot dinghy, laden with exotic sea fare, arrives on the empty beach to sell to Roellinger, and the chef inspects two nearly identical mucus colored creatures before asking if one of them is a catshark. We are never given to suspect the thing will become anything less than the best meal someone has eaten in years.
Denmark’s René Redzepi goes to a swamp and tears out a few long green stalks which taste “woody,” and “like hearts of palm.” Although his restaurant Noma was voted “Best Restaurant in the World” by the British magazine Restaurant in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Redzepi often complains of how little money there was in haute cuisine, and his take was no minority report. Several chefs remarked of their small fortunes and financial woes. Hachmeister makes a point of backing up Redzepi’s claims, showing him leave his restaurant at two in the morning, light a cigarette and peddle home on a bicycle not half as nice as yours. For all his accolades, Redzepi has yet only obtained two stars from Michelin (a third star stands to spike his business as much as forty percent). His frustration with this fact is apparent every other time he speaks of cooking, and perhaps permeates even the food he serves. A recent survey of Noma’s menu reveals “Blueberry and ants” as an option, as well as “Potato and bleak fish roe.” Bleak indeed. To console yourself, a 40 page wine list may be consulted.
In an age when objective standards are so highly prized, the struggle to obtain all three Michelin stars seems an oddity. Many academic tests are graded by machine, and clinical trials push medical advertising further and further towards quantifying emotion. Soon, I imagine, one brand of anti-depressant will make a man “43% happier” than another. But the Michelin stars seem purely subjective. The chef is not rated by his peers, but by customers whose tastes and preferences blow wherever they please. The chef does not appeal to a written code, but to men and women who have an ineffable law written within. Conventional wisdom within academia suggests that students need to be aware of the criteria upon which they are judged. Obviously, objective standards have the capacity to call forth human greatness. First Man on the Moon. First Man to Top Mt Everest. First Man to Break the Sound Barrier. However sublime, such Firsts are triumphs of engineering and ingenuity and courage, but few would suggest Chuck Yeager an artist. These are men backed by problem-solving teams, blueprint makers, geographers. They represent the human desire to ascend to the divine, but require a simpler kind of judge than, say, a ballroom dancing competition. A perfect slap shot in hockey or an unattended goal both earn a single point in a game of hockey; style is without strategic value. Armstrong is the first on the moon, whether he trips down the steps or gracefully leaps whilst reciting poetry. First Man on the Moon is an easy call, but Greatest Man on the Moon is endlessly variable, and so the three star rating seems to inspire greatness because of its protean qualities, not in spite of them.
Tokyo’s Jiro Ono is the subject of David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and New York’s Paul Liebrandt the subject of Sally Rowe’s A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt. Jiro has three stars, although he never consciously worked for them, neither does he talk of them, nor does he seem even remotely interested in them. Jiro is now in his late 80s, bald, serene, bespectacled, and were his white kitchen smock swapped with a cinnamon colored robe, many an American would probably confuse him for the Dali Lama. A Matter of Taste chronicles more than seven years in Paul Liebrandt’s career, and Rowe began filming in 2000, shortly after Liebrandt, at the age of 24, became the youngest chef to earn three stars (out of four, unlike Michelin) from the New York Times. When the documentary begins, Liebrandt works at the Greenwich Village restaurant Atlas, which looks just a touch classier than an Applebees. Rowe shows us an Atlas barman pouring long shots of cheap vodka just so we can get our bearings, then Liebrandt personally serves an older couple an intimidatingly small, yet colorful entree, artfully decorated with a sauce made of “pig blood,” as he describes it. When Atlas hits a standard clientele dry spell in the summer months, the owner resumes control of the menu, and Liebrandt is left cooking gourmet burgers and fries, more or less mortified. Think of Damien Hirst teaching sculpture in a Montgomery middle school. Desperate for an audience who can appreciate his genius, LIebrandt jumps ship and searches for years before landing at Corton in 2008, where he will ultimately earn two Michelin stars and obtain a modicum of satisfaction with his life.
While Jiro is nearing the end of his career and Liebrandt is only beginning, I still suspect Liebrandt aspires to something far less. He is anxious to please the mystery, eager to shepherd the wind of a critic’s taste, and so he has created things of beauty. However, Jiro transcends not only Liebrandt, but Roellinger and all the rest of the best in Three Stars. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is so named for Jiro’s (entirely believable) claim to have had “visions” of sushi at night from a young age, and that he woke in the night to write down ideas which ascended through his subconscious and into his dreams. His career is devoted not to originality, but mastery of a form. In the last forty years, so his sons claim, the only change in Jiro is the loss of a cigarette habit at age seventy. “Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably,” says the man declared by the Japanese government to be a “living national treasure.” Jiro presses a small cut of fish into rice (“as if it were a baby chick”), Gelb holds the camera on the finished piece just after the chef sets it down and switches his frame rate to something astronomically high. For a slow motion moment, the slightly compressed edible work of art minutely expands, blooming like an uncut flower. Jiro does not use exotic ingredients as does Redzepi or Roellinger; most foods seem perfect untouched, as God has made them, and lack only a proper frame or a paean of salt, soy or dry aging.
“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,” says Jiro, rather elegantly expressing the appeal of a subjective standard. First Man on the Moon is quite the prize, but there will be no Firster Man to supplant Armstrong. Jiro’s desire is to ever narrow in on perfection, although perfection can always be split in two, and some even more exacting center can be found. The Perfect is infinite and cannot be circumscribed. “No one knows where the top” of The Perfect is, because we cannot escape God to view him objectively, from the outside. That Jiro’s desire is born out of some interior vision, that his knowledge is purely intuitive, defies Enlightened demands for perfect knowledge to be devoid of human prejudice and sentiment. God invests His image in men, after all, and not in laws.