Interview: David Gelb Dreams of L.A. Sushi

If you've ever been kicked out of a sushi restaurant for trying to order a Sexy Late Night Roll, then you know how it is: there's a wide disparity in between sushi purists and the casual snacker. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Los Angeles, with the availability of every level of sushi -- from the fast food chains to the ultra-exclusive (and expensive) temple to the cuisine.

In the film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." director David Gelb, a USC-alum, provides an intimate look into the world of master sushi-chef Jiro Ono, and the rag-tag crew of experts that work to create a level of cuisine that can only be described as art. As preparation for the film, Gelb created a short film (see above) about L.A.'s own master sushi-chef: Kazunori Nozawa, proprietor of the venerable but now sadly defunct Nozawa Restaurant in Studio City, and the SugarFISH chain of restaurants.

So he must know a little bit about sushi in L.A., and how it compares to the real thing in Japan. We asked him a few questions about the cultural differences that define sushi culture in L.A. and Japan. Here's what he had to say:

Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

You produced a student film on sushi, and then a short film about Nozawa. And now "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Can tell us a bit about this journey?

I think sushi chefs are fascinating individuals. I especially am interested in intense, no-nonsense sushi chefs that wouldn't think twice about ejecting disrespectful patrons from the restaurant. All three of these projects involve chefs like that. The sushi chef is like a blade wielding retainer of order and tradition that makes customized, delicious meals right before your eyes!

Do you have to be Japanese to become a master sushi-chef? Are there elements to the cuisine that can only be understood by the culture that created it?

Being a great sushi chef simply requires patience, humility and sensitivity. Unfortunately, it seems patience and humility are qualities that are becoming progressively hard to come by in young people. It takes 10 years of training to become a true sushi chef.

Did the popularity of Nozawa's no-frills style have an influence in changing the perception of what sushi is in Los Angeles?

Nozawa brought the art of the sushi omakase (tasting menu) to Los Angeles. I think he opened many American's eyes to the potential of sushi. Nozawa's rice is delicious!

How would a revered sushi chef in L.A. like Nozawa rate in Japan? How would a restaurant like Jiro's do in L.A.?

I think Nozawa would do great in Japan -- his food is delicious, and his rice is excellent. For the quality, a meal at Nozawa is a bargain. Same with Sugarfish. Whether or not Jiro's would do well in L.A. really depends on whether the people are sensitive enough to appreciate his artistry. I'm not sure if Angelenos would be willing to pay such a high price for such a fast meal.

Is there an advantage or disadvantage to operating a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles? Can a sushi restaurant in L.A. operate on the same level as Jiro's?

I'm not sure, can't really answer that. Jiro would never open a restaurant in L.A. because the fish wouldn't meet his standard of quality. He needs direct access to the Tsukiji fish market to make his ideal sushi.

As a non-Japanese person, will you ever be trusted as sushi expert? Can Angelenos truly understand the essence of sushi without leaving the city?

I'm only an expert at eating sushi. I'm by no means an expert at making it or even of its history. I think that all sushi lovers need to make the pilgrimage to Sukiyabashi Jiro or at least the restaurants of his apprenties Mizutani or Harutaka at least once to really taste the difference. They'll discover what I mean when I say that its all about the rice.

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi' was screened at KCET's Cinema Series on March 13, 2012. Listen to a live Q&A (different questions than above) with Gelb here.

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