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Daisuke Nakazawa: The Artist In His Domain

Pete Wells, the dining critic of The New York Times, gives four stars to a new sushi restaurant. Excerpt:

I remember precisely the dull luster of Mr. Nakazawa’s mackerel and the way its initial firmness gave way to a minor-key note of pickled fish and a major-key richness that kept building the longer I chewed. I can feel the warmth of just-poached blue shrimp from the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, which had a flavor that was deep, clean and delicate at the same time. I can tell you about the burning-leaf smell of skipjack smoked over smoldering hay until it becomes a softer, aquatic version of aged Italian speck.

OK, stop right there. You’re reading this and thinking that this is ultra-pretentious. But read on:

We don’t normally think of one sushi piece as wildly different from the next, apart from the inherent qualities of the main ingredient. But one of the points made by the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” was that a driven, obsessed chef will treat each sea creature as a unique challenge. He’ll ask, how can I make the best piece of horse mackerel anyone has ever tasted? When Jiro Ono dreamed of sushi, what he saw were new dishes waiting to be invented.

In the movie, Mr. Nakazawa was the young apprentice who cried when Mr. Ono conceded that he had finally made an acceptable egg custard. With his shaved scalp, bowed head, downturned eyes and meek acceptance of Mr. Ono’s criticisms, he gave the impression of a novice Zen monk who was accustomed to abuse in the name of enlightenment. (He also gave you the idea that Jiro could be kind of a pill.)

Mr. Nakazawa must have learned something, because his fish often tastes as if it has been coaxed along until it’s as delicious as it’s ever going to get. Each slice has a slightly different temperature, affecting flavor and texture, whether it spreads on your tongue or stays firm and chewy. All good sushi chefs do this, but Mr. Nakazawa seems to be able to hit any point on the thermometer with an assassin’s aim, locating a temperature for yellowtail belly that makes its buttery richness into a time-release pleasure bomb.

This is fine criticism, because Wells explains why Chef Daisuke Nakazawa is able to achieve the pinnacle of success as a sushi chef. I like sushi a lot, but don’t love it, so I doubt I would be able to appreciate artistry at the level Wells describes here. But I do like good cooking, and I did watch Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (it’s on Netflix streaming, and I loved, I mean really loved, the film’s portrait of Jiro Ono, who comes off as more of a monk than a chef. You get from that film what is possible when natural talent blends with slavish devotion to one’s craft — or, if you prefer, to one’s art. You also get a sense of what working at that level of artistry costs a man. You don’t have to love sushi to appreciate the beauty of an artist working at the top of his game.

I should add that as a journalist who has had to write criticism before, reading Pete Wells’s review is also to encounter artistry. I wrote about movies, and I think I was good, but very far from great, because that stuff is hard. Everybody thinks they could do it, but if you asked them to sit down and write 700 words explaining why a film worked, or didn’t, while also offering enough of a plot summary to inform the reader without spoilers, and without boring the reader senseless, they couldn’t begin to do it. Try it sometime. Try explaining coherently and efficiently why the last movie you saw that you liked worked well. Anyway, it was a great pleasure to read Wells’s review, and an even greater pleasure to know that there is a chef in New York who works at that level of greatness. I’m certain I will never have the opportunity to eat there, but it makes me happy to know that a restaurant like Sushi Nakazawa, and a chef like Daisuke Nakazawa, exist.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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