5 Lessons in Mastery from a World Class Sushi Chef

17 Nov, 2016

I’m a firm believer that no matter what you do, pursuing mastery should always be part of the process. Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you land among the stars. 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. Yes, sushi, but not that type of sushi. This isn’t the all you can eat for 25 bucks places. This here is about as sushi as it gets.

A small bar, near a train station in Tokyo with just 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, who oozes mastery. Sukiyabashi is a restaurant with three Michelin stars under its belt.

To put things in perspective, there are less than 100 restaurants in the world with three Michelin stars. There are no California rolls or fried chicken, just Omakase style sushi, which means there is no menu.

The Jiro way

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 around 300 euros. Tell the cab driver to wait outside; you get served an average of 20 sushi, and dinner lasts under 30 minutes.

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 in mastery to be learned from his way of working. If you haven’t seen the documentary, I highly suggest watching it. It’s very inspirational and scary (true mastery is really hard to obtain) at the same time.

Let’s break down some of the best lessons that relate to more than sushi.

#1. Embrace the process to mastery

Imagine waking up every day at 5 AM, performing your morning routine, and then go to 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 customers, 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 day at 5 AM? Probably not, and this is precisely why a lot of people switch jobs nowadays like they switch underpants. They get stuck in what they don’t like about their careers and focus on it. The bad aspects grow more significant than the good elements, and 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.

Fall in love

If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life. If you find your true calling, you have to stick with it, love it, and mastery will be the ultimate reward. Fall in love with it like you did with your high school crush and never get bored with it. Accept the flaws in the work and appreciate them. They are a part of the process 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, things begin to fall apart, and you can forget about mastery.

What you focus on becomes reality. You have to sacrifice your life to become a master at your craft. Do whatever it takes to become a master. If you have to get up everyday single day 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 anytime soon.

#2. Be an apprentice

Being an apprentice means you are granted an opportunity to learn from someone 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 as a baby is. Jiro’s son is in his fifties and still works as an apprentice for his dad, and he is still learning. He made a three-star meal for the people of Michelin and blew them away, but he still can learn from Jiro, so he still is an apprentice.

This is a very high level of apprenticeship, but there are 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 load a sample 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.

If you act as you know it all or are always say “yeah but”, you are missing out on the most significant rewards of life. These are the people who keep asking things and ask them to several 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. The Dalai Lama once said: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

Listen and get ahead

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 of weeks later they ask the same damn question! Being ignorant and wasting your own time is fine, but involving other people is not.

Having a great mentor can literally save you years. They already made the mistakes for you and know the ins-and-outs to get results fast.  Not everybody has access to a mentor, but the digital age came with solutions. YouTube and blogs are your friends, and so are good old fashion books. There are some incredible YouTube channels from credible people out there that give fantastic advice on mastery. Do a little research, and you’ll stumble on some great information that will benefit you 100%.

Several people mentored the most successful people in history 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 Sir Richard Branson, and a crazy homeless person was talking nonsense to him.

At one point, Sir Branson pulls out a notebook and starts writing. The other people asked what he was doing, and he said the person 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?

3. Create a routine and be consistent

Jiro and his staff repeat the same routine day in, 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 every day, they reach a certain level of flow and mastery that is unmatchable. By repeating it every day, they have taken all the flaws and errors out and have become the best they can possibly 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 every day and showing up late, 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, 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 it.

Set a standard for self-discipline, make an effort, and repeat it every day. When the people from Michelin came in for an undercover diner to see if the restaurant was still worthy of three Michelin stars, they were 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.

4. Simplicity is key in mastery

One of the things about Sukiyabashi that 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 to be praised. Adding unnecessary stuff just takes away from the pureness of the product. 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 outstanding, it doesn’t need any extras to make it attractive. 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 extras to make it interesting, the basic concept isn’t good enough. This brings to mind a quote from Mozart: “The music is not in the notes but in the silences between.” Now let that sink in for a minute. Relates to more than just music if you ask me.

5. Become a better version of yourself, again, and again

If it’s not good, don’t serve it. It has to be better than last time.  Making this a core value forces yourself to make better stuff every time. Check every detail. Only the best is good enough, if not the best than nothing at all. 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 than 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. Also, it’s essential to improve your spectrum. To make good food, you have to eat good food.

What does this mean from a music producer’s point of view? 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 lose people.

Stay true to yourself

Stay true to yourself, and you will attract like-minded 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 to see if you are still on the right track.

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 well-being of humanity. 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, therefore, 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: Foodbrigade