The winner of this gruelling, 14-country competition to find the world’s best sushi chef must combine precision, creativity and speed – as well as high-end hospitality skills and very a thick skin
The man behind the counter moves as slowly as an ancient, majestic Galápagos tortoise. This is Jiro Ono, the greatest sushi chef in the world.
It’s the last week of November, and I’m in Tokyo to be a judge at the final of the Global Sushi Challenge, a new competition to find the world’s best sushi chef, and have stopped by Jiro Sushi for lunch to get a benchmark. Jiro-san, who turned 90 last month, is a national treasure in Japan and is now famous worldwide, thanks to the 2013 documentary Jiro: Dreams of Sushi.
It is unfair to compare a three-Michelin star, £165 meal with sushi made in the heat of competition, and I realise this is irritating given how difficult and costly it is to get a reservation, but this is the best sushi I have ever eaten: the rice, still warm and prepared so that the grains hold together just long enough to reach your mouth, is bracingly vinegared but balances perfectly with the umami-rich, aged raw fish and fresh shellfish.
After the meal, I ask him how he celebrated his birthday. He came to work as usual, he says with a shrug. This is what he does, this is his life. “The life of the shokunin [a Japanese artisan] is like a sportsman,” nods his son, Yoshikazu.
The Japanese take sushi very seriously indeed, and have created an organisation to promote good sushi-making around the world. The Tokyo-based World Sushi Skills Institute (WSSI) is funded by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to tackle such horrors as mushy supermarket sushi, “Asian” restaurants that serve Thai, Chinese and Japanese food from the same kitchen and, in particular, poor hygiene leading to the kind of food poisoning outbreaks that recently prompted the New York Hygiene department to insist sushi chefs wear plastic gloves (“Can’t make sushi with gloves!” one of the city’s leading sushi chefs barked when I asked him about this).
He is not competing; he has nothing to prove. He has made sushi all his life and stands here, behind the six-seat counter of his unassuming basement restaurant for dinner, five days a week (plus lunch on Saturdays), moulding the nigiri perhaps a little more slowly these days, but still with steady precision.