5 Lessons in Creative Mastery From Sushi Chef Jiro Ono

My first blog post was Master the Basics, about the importance of creating quality drums for your music productions. I’m a firm believer that no matter what you do, pursuing mastery should always be part of the process. The obvious country to visit for mastery is Japan. Land of the Rising Sun, geishas and samurais. This isn’t a piece about any of these. No sir, this is a story about sushi. “Ah sushi!” Yes sushi, but not that type of sushi. This isn’t the fancy all you can it within two hours for 25 bucks places. This here is about as sushi as it gets. A small bar, near a train station in Tokyo with only place for nine eaters, which are located directly at the counter. No waitresses, no appetizers, no deserts, no small talk, just sushi. This restaurant is Sukiyabashi and is run by Jiro Ono. Sukiyabashi is a restaurant with not one, not two, but three Michelin stars under its belt. To put things in perspective; there are less than 100 restaurants in the world with three Michelin stars. Expect no California rolls or fried chicken, just Omakase style, which basically means there is no menu; you eat what Jiro serves, in an order he carefully prepared. If you want to eat at Sukiyabashi, make sure to reserve a spot months ahead and don’t forget your wallet; menus start at around 300 euros. Tell the cab driver to wait outside, you get served around 20 sushi and diners last under 30 minutes. The gap between Sukiyabashi and the number two runner-up isn’t even a gap. Sukiyabashi is on a whole other level.

Jiro Ono is 89 years old and still works with the same energy and love for his job as 76! years ago when he started making sushi. In his documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi“, the camera follows him and along the way there are some precious life lessons to be learned from his way of working that fit great with making music as well. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet I highly suggest watching it. It’s very inspirational and scary (true mastery is really hard to obtain) at the same time. Lets break down some of the best lessons that relate to more than sushi.

Become one with your profession

Imagine waking up everyday at 5 AM, performing your morning routine and than be at the docks to pick up the best fish at the fish market. You go to your restaurant on your bike and start preparing. You plan the menu and have a small meeting with the rest of the staff. Then it’s time to serve your costumers, clean the place, close up shop and go home. Sounds all right to do so for a couple of months right? Jiro performs this routine every single day for decades and loves every minute of it. He loves it so much he dislikes birthdays and holidays because it interferes with his routine that he loves so much. Have you ever met someone who loved every aspect of his or her job and loves to wake up every Monday at 5 AM? Probably not and that’s exactly why a lot of people switch jobs nowadays like they switch underpants. They get stuck in what they don’t like about their job and focus on it. The bad aspects grow larger than the good aspects and you’ve done it again; you’re fed up with your 22nd job. Now you can keep doing this until you’re old, miserable and not really good at anything. But Jiro doesn’t roll (see what I did here) like this. No sir, Jiro understood the name of the game at an age most people where still begging their mommies to spoon-feed them.

If you love what you do you never have to work a day in your life. If you find your profession, or rather your calling of life, you have to stick with it, love it and become a master at it. Fall in love with it like you did with your high school crush and never get bored with it. Accept the flaws of the work and appreciate them. They are a part of the whole and make the beauty of what you do even more intense. Never complain about your work. The moment you start complaining about what you don’t like or why you don’t like it stuff begins to fall apart. What you focus on becomes reality. Sacrifice your life to become a master at your profession. Do whatever it takes to become a master. If you have to get up everyday at 5 AM, so be it. No time to hang with your friends? Big deal, stay focused and go all in. Know your process in and out. Jiro still loves his job and everything that comes with it. At age 89 he’s showing no signs of stopping any time soon. Music producers who keep putting out one quality track after another are in it for the right reasons and that’s why they last a lifetime. They are comfortable with spending weeks in solitary, comfortable with hearing no, they just keep going. Why? They fell in love with what they do, became a master at it and still continue to grow and accepted all the bad parts about it as a contribution to the good parts.

Start as an apprentice

An apprenticeship basically means you are granted an opportunity to learn from someone who is better than you. Someone passes his skills on to someone else so the skill will stay in this world and evolves even more. Going to school is an apprenticeship, learning football at a young age is, and learning to walk is. If this beautiful thing didn’t exist men would probably still chase women with a bat and wack them on the head so they could take them back to their cave. Jiro’s son is in his fifties and still works as an apprentice for his dad and he’s still learning. He made a three star worthy meal for the Michelin people and blew them away with the quality, but he still can learn from Jiro so he still is an apprentice. This is a very high level of apprenticeship, but there’s all sorts of levels of mentors; the big brother teaching his younger brother how to fight, the girl who’s been doing kickboxing for two years teaching the newbie how to punch, the guy two months into producing showing his friend how to open the pool window in Cubase. Mentorships can last a lifetime or last a couple of minutes. As long as you are learning from someone you are more or less an apprentice at that time.

For the people who think they know it all or are always say “yeah but”, you are missing out on the biggest rewards of life. These are the people who keep asking things and ask them to a number of people until one of them gives the answer they want to hear. They are not asking to learn, they are just asking to hear someone say they are right. Most of the times it’s a good thing to just shut up and actually listen to what someone is telling, better yet teaching, you. Small life lesson from the Dalai Lama: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Pretty cool eh! Even if you disagree with what your mentor is teaching you, you are still learning. Maybe you’ve learned how not to do something. I’m often blown away by people asking me about something, I explain it in full detail, and they don’t follow through because they know it better or keep saying yeah but and a couple weeks later they ask the same damn question! Being ignorant and wasting your own time is fine, but involving other people is just messed up.

Having a great mentor can literally save you years. They already did all the stupid mistakes for you and know the ins and out to get results fast. If the opportunity for an apprentice ever arises I’ll be grabbing it with both hands. There’s so much to learn from other people that can upgrade your game so much! Not everybody has access to a quality mentor, but the digital age came with solutions. YouTube and blogs are your friend and so are good ol’ fashion books. There are some incredible YouTube channels from credible people out there that give amazing advice on making music, mixing and mastering, even on how to polish a bowling ball like a pro. Do a little research and you’ll stumble on some amazing stuff that will benefit you 100 %. The most successful people in history where mentored by several people at the same time. Famous painters, musicians, psychologists, scientists and so on had mentors. I heard a story the other day from someone who had dinner with super successful entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and a wanderer who was bat shit crazy was talking nonsense to him. At one point Sir Branson pulls out a notebook and starts writing several lines. The other people asked what he was doing and he said the wanderer said some interesting things from another perspective he never thought about. If Sir Richard Branson can learn from a crazy guy, why should you not learn from someone else?

The power of routine

Jiro and his staff repeat the same routine day in and day out, year in and year out. Becoming a sushi chef at Sukiyabashi is built on routine. Aspiring chefs start out cleaning fish for ten years, after that they move on to boiling eggs. By repeating the same routine everyday they reach a certain level of flow, which is unmatchable. By repeating it everyday they have taken all the flaws and errors out and have become the best they can be. For them this routine isn’t hard, it has become a habit, a natural thing they can’t live without anymore. Strong routines plant the seeds for the future. If you have a routine of waking up late everyday, you will be in a constant vibe of rushing and half assing things. Create a routine of waking up early, doing some exercise, having a quality breakfast, drinking your coffee in the morning sun, meditate, whatever, and you’ll be off with a head start. Setting up a routine in the beginning can be hard to follow, but once it becomes a habit you can’t live without. Set a standard for self-discipline, make an effort and repeat it everyday. When the people from Michelin came in for an undercover diner to see if the restaurant was still worthy of three Michelin stars the where blown away by the superb quality and mastery of the food. Little did they know Jiro wasn’t in and his son (still an apprentice) made the sushi that day.

Now building a routine on cleaning fish might not sound appealing to you, but how about building a routine for making music? Instead of waking up whenever you feel like it, how about being in the studio every morning at nine and work on making music. Create a certain workflow and become a master at it. When you want to learn to play the piano and you play once every other week, it will take you a long time to make some progression if any because you will spend most of the time trying to recall what you did two weeks ago. When you play the piano every single day at 7 PM, you’ll get good fast. Look at the routine somebody is following right now and you can tell where he will be in ten years.

Simplicity is key

One of the things about Sukiyabashi what stood out most for me was the simplicity of everything. There was nothing to compliment the sushi because the sushi in itself didn’t need a compliment. Adding unnecessary stuff just takes away from the pureness of the concept. The plate on which the sushi was served only had the sushi on it and some ginger. Ultimate simplicity leads to absolute purity. When something is really good it doesn’t need any extras to make it appealing. It actually downgrades the product. If there’s one thing I’ve picked up over the years of making music it is that if you need to add a lot of FX or just keep adding stuff to make it interesting, the basics are not good enough. If you have to add mixing plugins to your snare, the snare isn’t good. Instead of mixing the snare until your CPU starts crumbling down, go back to the drawing board and find a quality snare. A great quote from Mozart says: “The music is not in the notes but in the silences between.” Now let that sink in for a minute; “The music is not in the notes but in the silences between.” Now that’s some deep stuff right here!

So what do you do when you are making a record? Stay on the 4, 8 or 16 bar groove and work on it until it’ spot on. Keep it simple and functional. If all is good the basics will blow your wig right off. Create balance and harmony in your work instead of adding so much stuff until you can’t hear what is what. When I order a steak I want a quality steak and I don’t care about side dishes or what so ever. When the steak arrives with a shitload of side stuff like extreme garnish, sauces, veggies and I can hardly find the steak because it’s covered with all this stuff, the steak is probably shit. The chef knows it’s shit, but he just thinks if he adds enough sideshit the customer won’t notice it’s shit. I love Gordon Ramsay because he has a great shit detector. He goes to these half ass restaurants that are almost bankrupt to help them out and after he blows of the excess of garnish from the steak, saves it from drowning in grease and sauce he always comes out with the same verdict in every single restaurant: The food is shit! The solution is always the same as well: Downgrade the menu from 100 + dishes to 20 dishes and keep it simple with quality ingredients. Some of these restaurants don’t make it out because they are too arrogant to accept Gordon Ramsay as a mentor (See above chapter about apprenticeship). An outcome well deserved. It always blows my mind when some cocky guy running the restaurant says something like: “Chef Ramsay doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.” Really?!?! Did you really just say that? If you don’t accept the opportunity of learning from a world-class chef and serial entrepreneur on how to cook and how to run a business you deserve to go bankrupt.

Become A Better Version Of Yourself

If it’s not good, don’t serve it. It has to be better than the last time. Your record didn’t come out as good as you thought? Then there are three options: Take it back to the drawing board, keep it for yourself or put it in the trash. By making this a principle you force yourself in making better stuff every time. Check every detail. Only the best, if not the best than nothing. If the tuna today isn’t up to par, Jiro doesn’t serve tuna sushi that night. He rather sells no than selling something that isn’t better then last night. Jiro’s tuna supplier says: “We don’t sell to everyone, only to the people who truly appreciate our product.” Jiro’s rice supplier has one type of rice he only sells to Jiro because he is the only one who can give credit to making the product. There is no sense in buying something from which you don’t know how it works or how to make it. Also it’s important to train your own tasting muscles. In order to make good food you have to eat good food.

What does this mean for a music producer? Get in the habit of creating better records every time. Get quality equipment and quality samples, work with a small group of labels and build a sustainable relationship with them. Work with quality people who share this same philosophy and build relationships on trust. If someone doesn’t appreciate your work, don’t accept them as a customer or partner. Don’t be afraid to loose people. Stay true to yourself and you will attract likeminded people. Listen to music and lots of it. If you make house music don’t limit yourself to just house music. Listen to Jazz, Hip-hop, Rock, Soul, and listen carefully. Also use references for your productions. I always set up a couple of reference tracks when I mix and master my own tracks to see if I’m still up to par. It’s easy to get caught up and think you are still on the right track when in reality you are so far lost in the forest there’s no way back.

Last but not least. Contribute. The one thing all the chefs in Sukiyabashi set out to become is a Shokunin: a craftsman or artist with an attitude of social awareness. A mental and spiritual task to do your absolute best to contribute to the wellbeing of mankind. For someone who makes food or makes music this could sound a bit farfetched or too spiritual, but think about it. If you strive to become a shokunin you’ll become a better person and therefor a better artist. You do it for the right reasons. Jiro doesn’t care about money, he only cares about making better sushi. As an artist you should not care about money or fame, you should care about making better music. Lets round things up with a beautiful quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money. We make movies to make money so we can make better movies.”

Photo credit: Movie still from “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”

If you think this would help/inspire someone in their quest, please share this with them. It would mean the world to me. Thanks!

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