Kaizen: Uncovering the Secret of the 3-Michelin-Star Sushi Restaurants

These chefs require you to reserve months prior and splash out your money for a single set sushi menu

‘Former US president Barrack Obama enjoyed sushi at Sukiyabashi Jiro Restaurant with Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe.’ Photograph: Pete Souza/Flickr

I hardly ever ate nigiri sushi before I lived in Japan.

How could you eat rice with only raw fish as a topping, dipping it in salty soy sauce, and adding extra wasabi that can burn your mouth?

Fortunately, thanks to people in Japan who relatively a high-consumer of sushi. Fast-forwarded to the next two years after I’ve lived here, I’m getting started to like it. You can easily find fresh fish in Tokyo, especially in Tsukiji Fish Market.

Tsukiji is the largest wholesale fish market in the world, which also has retail and restaurants around the market, making it popular as a tourist spot.

Tuna auction that held before dawn become the most popular thing for tourists to come to visit. The most expensive Bluefin Tuna fetched 74.2 million yen (USD 670,000) in early 2017, which indicates that sushi has a tremendous demand and widespread among Japanese society.

The latter distribution of selected high-quality fish, furthermore, will end up among the best sushi restaurants.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is one of the best sushi restaurants located in Ginza Tokyo. The restaurant has been spotlighted after being awarded by Michelin Guide for its excellence.

If you want to taste their mouth-watering sushi, you need to order three months in advance and prepare about USD 270 for a set omakase menu.

‘Jiro Ono: The 3 Michelin star sushi chef, in a still photo from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary film by David Gelb in 2011.’ Photograph: Kevin Iwashina/Magnolia Pictures

Question: What is the difference between Sukiyabashi Jiro and other sushi restaurants?

The 99% -Rotten Tomatoes documentary film directed by David Gelb, titled Jiro Dreams of Sushi, tells us how Jiro Ono (the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro) achieved it.

However, Jiro explained that there is nothing special about his restaurant. Having worked in sushi restaurants for over 50 years, he has never felt as a master of sushi, although some people dubbed him as ‘The God of Sushi’.

He solely appreciates the basic principles of sushi making and continues to innovate in trying to give better sushi to his customers.

“I don’t think that I’m doing anything out of the ordinary. But I believe, following the main principal in making a sushi and always keep trying to improve your skills will make you one step ahead. And if you stray from those principals, you will completely stray off the track,” said Jiro.

Jiro dedicates plenty of his time, working hard to focus on something that he loves, and always trying to improve his skills.

Another 3-Michelin-Star sushi chef, Takashi Saito, always listens to customer feedback about his sushi taste and always make improvements based on the suggestion.

Saito opened his sushi restaurant 13 years ago in Roppongi district, a well-known downtown area in Tokyo. Since then, he has put a high passion and always give room for improvement when making sushi to satisfy his customers.

He doesn’t want his customer like his restaurant because the food is tasty. Instead, he wants to make a dish, which can makes his customer feel good emotionally so they have the motivation to keep working hard until they can make another reservation again in his restaurant.

“Food is not just about the taste, but also about heart and mind. Connecting them both express my passion for this work,” said Saito.

When he sees customer eating his sushi, Saito would feel the passion that could lead him in making a better sushi.

‘Another 3 Michelin star sushi chef, Takashi Saito, prepared a tuna nigiri sushi for his customer.’ Photograph: Aiste Miseviciute/Luxeat

Little improvement is important to the Japanese.

Kaizen (改善) is a Japanese concept which means improving continuously. For the Japanese, Kaizen is an inseparable concept of work habits. To find out, it doesn’t matter whether the improvement is on a large scale, Kaizen values small improvement that can improve your work level.

The most important thing for Kaizen: Consistency.

“There is no job suited to you. You become suited to the job.” — Jiro Ono

Jiro explained that to be a sushi chef, you need to start learning the basic principles and keep improving your skills on the daily basis.

The first thing to do if you become an apprentice at Sukiyabashi Jiro: You ‘just’ need to squeeze a hot towel, making sure every corner of the restaurant is clean, polish all the kitchenware, and prepare the foodstuffs.

For almost ten years before you can start cooking your first dish. An egg sushi.

“Cleaning is very important for apprentice because it reflects the attitude towards cooking. If they cannot clean properly, then they cannot cook properly. I believe, compared to the preparation techniques, making sushi is not so difficult for a sushi chef,” said Jiro.

Once the basic steps have been done for a certain period of time, the apprentice should think about how to improve the taste of sushi to achieve a signature taste by their own. After they become a sushi chef, necessarily, they still need to pursue improvements as they used to do.

Like a Kaizen concept.

After 11 years apprenticed at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Daisuke Nakazawa is now opening his sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village Manhattan.

There are more than 24,000 restaurants in New York City, but only six restaurants are awarded as 4-star-rating restaurant according to The Wall Street Journal. One of them is Sushi Nakazawa, a restaurant run by sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa and his colleague Alessandro Borgognone, an Italian restaurateur.

Nakazawa considers the most important thing to open a sushi restaurant is the quality of food and local approach. He applied the innovations that taught by Jiro when he started to make his signature dish, a New York-mae or New York-style sushi.

While making a restaurant in New York City, obviously, he doesn’t want to make authentic Tokyo traditional style. Yet, the New York approach is better for him.

“I make the experience for my customer. Not just food, not just service, not just drink. I make experience. Total experience,” said Nakazawa.

He’s using his understanding of New York in his sushi. All in all, American customers seem more satisfied as he serves the sushi they’re accustomed to.

‘Daisuke Nakazawa, Jiro’s former apprentice, at his sushi restaurant in Manhattan, NYC.’ Photograph: Daniel Krieger/The New York Times

I can see that the most fundamental thing for all these sushi chefs is improvement and specialty.

It is better for us to concentrate on practicing in specific aspects according to our passion. Sometimes, we often underestimate ‘simple work’, which is actually a basic principle for our further goal.

We need to improve our skills even it’s only small things. But, if we have done consistently and focused on just one aspect, it will have a significant impact on improving our skills.

We will never be able to do it all. We should do the one thing well rather than three things badly.

As my academic supervisor said to me, after setting our goals, we have to always remember the rule of three:

  1. Do the same thing every three days — and you will just start to know it

2. Do the same thing every three months — and you will just start used to it

3. Do the same thing every three years — and you will just start to capable on it

Conclusion: To be a master of something that we want to be, how long do we have to get used to doing it?