04(13): The secret of success according to the world’s greatest sushi chef

Nicholas Loh Avatar


What is your favourite cuisine?

Personally, it would be Japanese (Western is a joint favourite). My love for Japanese food began at the tender age of nine, when I was granted even more daily pocket money upon advancing to being a Primary Three student at Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School (PHPPS). A photograph of the primary school is attached below. When I was in Primary One or Two, school sessions would occur in the afternoon, and there would be lunch and dinner at home. As for my classmates and I, we would just talk to one another and play catching in the school field.

However, from Primary Three through Six, school sessions would occur in the morning, and it became pretty popular for my fellow classmates and I to consume food during recess time (most likely due to my peers and I now indulging in our newly-acquired increased purchasing power), in addition to the breakfast and lunch many of my peers and I would enjoy at home.

Favourite meal at the primary school canteen

One of my fondest memories of primary school would be that of consistently buying a particular set meal from the Japanese food stall of the school canteen during the half-an-hour recess time. The meal consisted of the following: rice, some dark brown sauce, egg, and three pieces of yakitori (Japanese skewered chicken; the Japanese words ‘yakitori’ literally translate to ‘grilled bird’). There would also be seaweed strips sprinkled over the rice and other ingredients. All of this would be presented on a translucent rectangular tray, from which I would partake of the scrumptious food.


Since that first exposure to Japanese food (at worst, a simulacrum of it), I have gone on to try other aspects of Japanese cuisine as the years passed. In particular, I stumbled upon sushi, a huge component of Japanese cuisine that is responsible for the cuisine’s widespread appeal. Sushi is an element of Japanese cuisine that I deeply relish, and it is precisely what I will talk about more in this post.

At least in the local context, authentic Japanese sushi is rather pricey as proper ingredients which are as fresh as reasonably possible, of excellent quality, often have to be imported directly from Japan. This contributes to the steep price of authentic Japanese sushi.

The overwhelming ubiquity of ‘fake’ wasabi

Just take wasabi as an example of the sheer value of ‘proper’ ingredients in the art of making sushi.

The overwhelming majority of so-called ‘wasabi’ served in restaurants does not contain any real wasabi. Such ‘fake’ wasabi is manufactured from a blend of Western horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food colouring (the green colouring is required to convince people into thinking they’re consuming ‘real’ wasabi, which is actually green in colour). Many who think they know what wasabi tastes like have never actually tasted the real stuff, unless they have gone to top-of-the-line omakase restaurants such as Shoukouwa, or other places which serve real wasabi.

Unlike ‘fake’ wasabi, ‘real’ wasabi paste is obtained by grating the rootstalk (the technical term in botany for this would be ‘rhizome’) of the wasabi. When one grates real wasabi, the volatile compounds that confer the real wasabi its distinguished taste begin to disintegrate within minutes. That’s why real wasabi paste tastes best when it’s freshly grated. Wasabi is also considered challenging to grow, and this characteristic contributes to the vegetable’s high price. On the other hand, ‘fake’ wasabi is cheap and has a long expiration date.

Fake wasabi has a strong taste that overwhelms any delicate fish taste on the sushi. It delivers a strong blast of spiciness that comes from the mustard flour (recall the few basic ingredients that I mentioned above regarding what constitutes ‘fake’ wasabi). On the other hand, ‘real’ wasabi accentuates the delicate taste of fish in the sushi we consume. Real wasabi is not spicy. Rather, the taste of real wasabi is more like the aroma of spiciness but without the pungent punch of the mustard flour in the fake wasabi.

Sushi (cont.)

It’s not just the ingredients which are considered in the art of making authentic sushi. The expertise required for making authentic sushi needs to be considered too. Proper sushi-making is an art where knowledge is possessed only by a limited number of highly skilled sushi chefs. They have skills which are rare (even rarer outside of Japan). Coupled with the high demand for authentic sushi, anyone who has undergone an introductory economics class can tell you that the potent combination of a ‘low supply and high demand’ would result in the partaking of authentic sushi being a costly activity.

As a mere college student who isn’t swimming in multigenerational wealth, the hope of being able to enjoy authentic sushi regularly is but a distant dream. The fiscally prudent option, and what seems to be a reasonable compromise between quality and price, would be to settle for much more affordable mainstream sushi restaurants. While the experience at mainstream restaurants can never rival that of top omakase restaurants, it allows many Singaporeans the opportunity to still enjoy sushi at reasonable prices, which in my opinion, is still a great thing overall.

Moderately inauthentic sushi is still better than not having any sushi at all.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The thing which even inspired me to write about Japanese cuisine, and sushi in particular, was a documentary I had watched yesterday afternoon entitled “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.

This documentary was released in 2011. As the documentary begins, we are greeted by the soothing melody of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, one of my favourite pieces of classical music.

When this well-known piece of classical music finally comes to a halt in the documentary, we hear the first words of the legendary sushi master, Jiro Ono.

Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.

Jiro Ono, 96-year-old sushi chef

Jiro Ono is the Japanese chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, arguably the best sushi restaurant in the world. The restaurant can only seat up to ten people at any given time, and had earned three Michelin stars every year since 2007 until the year where it stopped receiving reservations from members of the public. Reservations are now only available to previous regulars, people with special connections, or people who book their reservations through the concierge of a luxury hotel. Sukiyabashi Jiro is no longer officially a three Michelin star restaurant because one of the guiding principles in how Michelin stars are awarded is that the eatery must be available to members of the general public.

In the documentary, we hear from Jiro’s older son:

“The techniques we use are no big secret. It’s just about making an effort and repeating the same thing every day. There are some who are born with a natural gift. Some have a sensitive palate and sense of smell. That’s what you call “natural talent”. In this line of business, if you take it seriously, you’ll become skilled. But if you want to make a mark in the world, you have to have talent. The rest depends on how hard you work.”

Yoshikazu Ono, the older son of Jiro Ono

One of the most well-known food critics in Japan speaks of Jiro, “He repeats the same routine every day. He even gets on the train from the same position. He has said that he dislikes holidays. The holidays are too long for him. He wants to get back to work right away. It’s unthinkable for most people.”

The food critic later goes on to say (the bolded text in this paragraph and the following three paragraphs all constitute quotes by this food critic), “A great chef has the following…attributes: first, they take their work very seriously and consistently perform on the highest level; second, they aspire to improve their skills; third is cleanliness…; the fourth attribute is impatience; they are not prone to collaboration; they’re stubborn and insist on having things their own way…”

“In France, the first Michelin guide was published in 1900. Michelin inspectors look first for quality. Next they look for originality, and finally they look for consistency. Jiro’s restaurant easily meets their standards. A perfect three-star Michelin rating means it is worth making a trip to that country just to eat at that restaurant.”

“When Jiro got three stars, everyone was astonished. There are only 10 seats there! The restroom is outside the premises. There’s not another three-star restaurant in the world like that. But the Michelin investigators say, “No matter how many times you eat at Jiro’s, the sushi there is incredible.” They said that three stars is the only rating adequate for the restaurant.”

“Always look beyond and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft”.

The climax of the documentary occurs towards the end of the documentary when it is revealed in the words of the food critic that during the first year that the restaurant was checked by Michelin, Jiro Ono didn’t make sushi for Michelin even once. Yoshikazu was the one who made sushi for them. Clearly, if Jiro permitted, Yoshikazu was skilled enough to take over the restaurant if circumstances called for it.

Lessons for us

Jiro Ono’s life is simply fascinating. I’ll quote him again:

Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.

His words are applicable beyond the domain of making sushi, and are incredibly inspiring.

In my case, the question of whether medicine is the field I should have chosen to come to with the benefit of hindsight is no longer an important or relevant one. The reality is that I decided to apply for medical school with the best available information to me at the time, and here I am. I had decided that I wanted to graduate with a medical degree and procure gainful employment which would ideally capitalise on the skills I would have acquired over the course of the undergraduate degree programme.

According to the advice of Ono, I should now immerse myself in medicine and what it takes to be a successful medical student. I have to fall in love with being a medical student. What Ono may be trying to drive across is that such passion and love for what one does comes with becoming better at what one does in the context of a positive feedback loop. This ties in well with the advice given by Cal Newport in his influential career advice book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Moreover, regarding Ono’s advice on not complaining about one’s job, though I have not graduated from medical school and started working as a doctor, I can identify moments in which I have lamented about certain aspects of being a medical student. Often, such lamentations are not constructive. A more meaningful thing to do is working diligently and humbly at improving my skills. Hopefully and ideally, this would manifest as me becoming more competent with each passing day.

I consider myself fortunate to have encountered such advice while still a student, even before I have entered the unforgiving working world. But even if you, dear reader, are already working, fret not. This advice is still highly relevant.

Whether we’re still in school or working, let’s focus on getting better at what we do. Don’t complain about our school or work.

As long as we do the above with consistency over the span of the many decades which we shall dedicate to mastering our craft, I’m confident that we will have a better shot at attaining success and being regarded honourably, just like Jiro Ono.

29 June 2022

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