Lessons on Success from the #1 Sushi Chef in the World

Jiro Ono Sushi Chef Magnolia Pictures

Jiro Ono – Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Jiro Ono is the first sushi chef in the world to get 3 Michelin Stars.

To put things in perspective, a restaurant with 3 Michelin Stars means that it’s worth making a trip to an entire country just to eat at that restaurant.

So when I first heard about Jiro, I imagined his restaurant to be in this ultra-high-end location, with super-sophisticated designs and hyper-colorful sushi plates that only billionaires eat at.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t so.

After watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the extraordinary documentary about Jiro’s sushi skills, the restaurant turns out to be located in a very discreet underground location in a Tokyo subway.

To make things even more baffling, the maximum number of people that can eat there is just 10, and if any one of them needs to go to the restroom, they have to step outside of the restaurant.

Jiro makes such phenomenal tasting sushi that none of that stuff matters.

To really understand why he deserves the prestigious 3 star award, as well as why he was declared a national treasure by Japan, you should watch the documentary.

Even if you’re not a big fan of sushi, you will still really enjoy it. That’s because the movie isn’t so much about sushi as much as it is about the pursuit of perfection.

Here’s the trailer of it:

5 Lessons on Success from Jiro

The entrepreneur in me was constantly taking mental notes while I was watching the documentary, and here are 5 lessons on success that I got from it:

 

1) Stay in Permanent Beta

In “The Start-Up of You,” authors Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha highlight the importance of keeping yourself in permanent beta – a state of continuous improvement where you’re never finished with advancing your skills (according to the book, “finished” is the entrepreneur’s f-word).

Jiro kept reminding me of that phrase in every single scene. He is 85 years old, and even after 70 years of experience, he is still working on perfecting his skillset. He constantly thinks of creative ways to do sushi in a better way than he did the day before. Would Octopus taste better if it’s massaged for 50 minutes instead of just 30? Yes it does, so that’s how he now does it.

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top…but no one knows where the top is.” – Jiro Ono

He also demands the same permanent beta mentality from his employees, including his 50-year old son who is set to take over the restaurant in the future.

 

2) Work Only with the Best

Jiro is a sushi master. He knows how to cut the perfect piece of fish and combine it with the perfect amount of rice. However, he realizes that he cannot be an expert at everything – especially with purchasing seafood. So he outsources that to other individuals who know what they’re doing.

Jiro buys the supplies for his restaurant from several independent experts. There’s a shrimp expert, an octopus expert and a rice expert. And they’re all the best at what they do.

The Tuna fish expert seemed to be even more picky than Jiro himself. In the documentary, he says something like “When there are 10 Tuna fish being sold on a given day, only one of them can really be the best. I either get that or I get nothing at all.”

If Jiro settled for mediocre partners, he probably wouldn’t have reached the level of perfection that he did.

 

3) Don’t do it Just for the Money

The menu at Jiro’s restaurant starts at 30,000 Yen (around $350). The average meal takes around 20 minutes to finish, which means that from a time/ cost perspective, the restaurant is probably the most expensive one in the world. If you want to make reservations, you have to call a month in advance.

I don’t think Jiro likes worrying about paying his bills, but he certainly isn’t doing what he’s doing for the money. He works because he’s crazy-passionate about sushi and utterly obsessed by it. He has grand visions in his dreams about it (that’s where the title comes from), and never stops working unless there’s an emergency like a funeral that he needs to attend. That’s real passion.

 

4) Focus on One Thing Only

Jiro only makes sushi. There are no appetizers, no sake, and no hibachis. As a minimalist, he also simplifies everything down to the bare essentials. The pieces are served one at a time, which means he doesn’t worry about fancy plating.

The sushi pieces themselves are also super-simple. They’re made of a piece of seafood, a lump of rice, some wasabi in the middle, and a swipe of what appears to be soy sauce over the top. That’s it. No California, avocado, cucumber, tempura, or maki rolls. He focuses on using the best ingredients, applying killer techniques, and getting the maximum depth of flavor in his food.

Had he expanded into offering other items, he might have lost focus on what mattered most. The result? Even Anthony Bourdain stated that eating at Jiro’s restaurant was the most amazing sushi experience of his life.

 

5) Adapt to your Customers

In one of the scenes, a group of 10 people were eating at Jiro’s restaurant, and one of them, a food critic who knows Jiro well, says: “What you don’t know is that Jiro is watching us as much as we’re watching him.” He was referring to the fact that Jiro was observing every minor detail of how his customers ate, and adapting his service accordingly.

Jiro placed sushi pieces for left-handed people in different positions than those for right-handed people. He also made the sushi pieces slightly smaller for the women so that both the men and women could finish eating and the food at the same time.

That’s what I call the pursuit of perfection.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m having sushi this weekend :)

Comments

  1. Hassan,

    Great post! I do feel sorry for poor Jiro. He seems driven by his passion for perfection. Trapped in a life without balance to me does not a success story make. He cannot declare victory and probably never will. His son cannot succeed him until his father dies. His customers will NEVER be fully satisfied because they continue to anticipate the next step in his climb to perfection. When death becomes the ONLY solution it may be time to revisit the problem. I still like the proverb “All things are good: In moderation…” Any and all opposing views are most welcome of course. :)

    Gary

    • Well put, Gary. I don’t think I envy Jiro’s life either. He kind of reminded me of Steve Jobs and the obsessions he had about perfection in technology design. However, I still think it’s possible to take those 5 lessons from Jiro and apply them to your own business without burning yourself out (and still enjoy the ride)!