Jiro and Bottura: Plating Passion

A historic encounter in Nobeoka. The Japanese sushi master: «Massimo has the best palate in the world». The chef from Modena: «His sushi carries 200 years of wisdom».


07-11-2017
Jiro Ono, sushi master at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Toky

Jiro Ono, sushi master at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo (3 Michelin stars), Massimo Bottura, chef at Osteria Francescana in Modena (3 Michelin stars), in Nobeoka, south Japan, for the International culinary conference organised by Matsushiro Yamamoto. A triumphant trip for both (photo by Takefumi Hamada)

It all begins on Thursday 2nd November at 5 pm. Massimo Bottura landed in Tokyo an hour ago and has one thing on his mind: sitting at Jiro Ono’s counter. The following day, the chef from Modena and the legendary sushi master are to meet in Nobeoka, 1000 km to the south-west of Tokyo. One of the most esteemed culinary critics in the country, Matsuhiro Yamamoto, the man who wrote the script for the successful “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” documentary, is responsible for bringing the two master chefs together.

Sukiyabashi Jiro, the only 3 Michelin star restaurant run by a man born in the 1920s, sits just off Peninsula, the hotel where Bottura is staying. He cannot wait until tomorrow. «One of the moments that thrills me the most», says the Italian chef as he twists and turns under a spring sun, «is when I go to Jiro’s. I’ve been there a dozen times. It thrills me because each mouthful carries 200 years of history. In his sushi there’s the obsession of a man who only thinks of quality, who never ceases to learn. He always understands the person in front of him. He knows I eat to nourish my heart, not my stomach. And one joy nourishes the other». He stops in front of a staircase: «It’s down there. Let’s hope they’re not closed».

On the mezzanine in front of the world famous sushi bar, two people are patiently waiting behind a sign which reads “no photos”. The sliding door to the restaurant is half-closed. Bottura peeks inside: «It’s him, he’s sleeping», says the excited chef. At this point Jiro’s son Yoshihiro arrives and wakes up his father. The Italian and Japanese chefs are joined in a long embrace. «What are you doing here?», asks a surprised Ono senior. «I stopped by to say hi». Another hug and the chef from Modena kisses the shiny head of the 92-year-old man, who, in reply of this exuberance, hands him a book that presents his work. «Jiro, do you think you have place today?», the Italian dares to ask before leaving. «What time?». «When you want». Ono gives a quick nod to his colleague who immediately returns with one of the world’s most exclusive reservation lists in hand, Barack Obama dined here in 2014 and many customers book their seat at the coveted counter a year in advance. The three of them stare hard at the list trying to find a place among the thick ideograms. «Sit now», orders the boss.

Jiro and his son Yoshi (54, to the right) look for a place for Bottura in the reservation book

Jiro and his son Yoshi (54, to the right) look for a place for Bottura in the reservation book

Jiro’s sushi counter. It seats 10 people

Jiro’s sushi counter. It seats 10 people

We’ll tell you what happened during the following 22 minutes in a separate post about what was a violent, frantic and uncontrollable experience. A meal formed by the result of 84 years of daily research focused on just three ingredients: rice, vinegar and fish. Young Jiro started working as a kitchen hand in the restaurant at just eight years old, way back in 1933. The place opened with the only money his father had, just 10 yens, 10 yens that have gone on to make sushi history. «See what I meant?», says a thrilled Bottura as we return to surface after the meal. «This is what travelling around the world is for. It makes you adjust the palate to the best possible sardine, it makes you doubt about how good all the octopus you ever had was; it raises the standards to unimaginable heights. Today I’m not in the kitchen at Francescana; but I cook every day using my brain. And the same applies to Davide and Taka when they travel with me».

The features of the reciprocal esteem will become clearer in the following days. In the famous documentary, there’s a part where Mizutani, a historic sushi-master in Tokyo, reflects on Jiro’s Stakhanovism: «Jiro leaves the restaurant just to go to funerals he cannot avoid. For decades he didn’t even leave at night, so much so, his children, when they saw him at home, would sometimes scream: look, there’s a stranger!». To participate in the debate with the Bottura at the International culinary conference in Nobeoka, Ono missed two services, Friday and Saturday. He whispered to Yamamoto, his friend of 35 years: «I’ve never left Tokyo: this is the first and last time».

Why the exception? We asked the master: «I’m here because every day many clients dine at my place, but very few can tell me which is the best piece (of sushi). Massimo always gets it. He has the best palate I know of, like Joel Robuchon. Every service, I have my favourite sushi [out of a tasting menu of 20 pieces] and he always guesses it. If I see a person who understands my work, I always try to do my best in terms of beauty, taste, quality. When I know he’s coming, I make him conger. Every time he tastes it, he hugs me. I see him at the counter and I’m happy».

Zaiyu Hasegawa, chef at Jimbocho Den in Tokyo (bottom right) posted this photo on Instagram. Left to right, Takahiko Kondo, Jiro Ono, Emi Hasegawa, Massimo Bottura, Luca Fantin, Riccardo Forapani and Matsuhiro Yamamoto

Zaiyu Hasegawa, chef at Jimbocho Den in Tokyo (bottom right) posted this photo on Instagram. Left to right, Takahiko Kondo, Jiro Ono, Emi Hasegawa, Massimo Bottura, Luca Fantin, Riccardo Forapani and Matsuhiro Yamamoto

Bottura with Japanese journalist Masa Ikeda, based in Italy. He’s the author of “Osteria Francescana, ristorante numero uno al mondo”, presented on Thursday at Peninsula hotel in Tokyo

Bottura with Japanese journalist Masa Ikeda, based in Italy. He’s the author of “Osteria Francescana, ristorante numero uno al mondo”, presented on Thursday at Peninsula hotel in Tokyo

A special commendation but the following one is even bigger: «Of all the clients from around the world, the only one I let sit without a reservation is Massimo. It never happens». It must be true as even Yamamoto admits he doesn’t enjoy the same privilege. Obama almost ended up on the black list because he dared leave a half-eaten piece of sushi on the counter.

Jiro and Massimo hate wasting food. Their individual fights against food-waste are one of the reasons why they were both summoned as speakers to a sleepy town in the prefecture of Miyazaki, chosen by Yamamoto in the countryside and suburbs «following Slow Food’s example in Bra». «Initially», he told the audience in awe, «sushi was born to recuperate left over fish. It was paired with vegetables, which we preserved in vinegar not to throw them away». An old technique that is still present with the marinated ginger always served with sushi. «Today young people don’t like it very much, that’s why I give smaller quantities». Even these days, with 3 Michelin stars and the world’s most sought after sushi, Jiro wastes nothing: «If there’s fish left over at the restaurant, I hide it in tea pots and take it home».

Right after him, Bottura delivered a much appreciated speech: «Every year we throw away 1.3 tons of food. We cannot accept this». He then gave a detailed report on the growth of the Refettori: «We’ve opened in Bologna, London, Milan, Modena and Rio de Janeiro and we’re about to open in Montreal, Naples, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Paris. As chefs, there’s a lot we can do: we’re much more than the sum of our recipes». These concepts were reinforced by the 3 dishes prepared for the final dinner with the help of Taka and Pippo from Modena, and Luca Fantin, who arrived specially from Bulgari in Tokyo alongside the chef from Den in Tokyo. Riso cacio e pepe, Parte croccante della lasagna and Oops mi è caduta la tartelletta al limone.

Bottura, Jiro and the mayor of Nobeoka

Bottura, Jiro and the mayor of Nobeoka

Jiro enjoyed the evening, enduring dozens of selfies with his trademark icy stare. «It’s the first time I have eaten Italian food after many years», he revealed, «I rarely go out and when I do, I almost always choose sushi. In fact, I think of sushi even when I sleep».

1. to be continued

See also
Sushi according to Jiro
Bottura-Jiro, a meeting of giants

[Translated by Slawka G. Scarso]


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