A master sushi chef

Creations of Tokyo sushi chef Jiro Ono.
CBS News

(CBS News) Jiro Ono is an octogenarian who works out of a tiny kitchen in the basement of a Tokyo office building. He also happens to be a culinary superstar. Lucy Craft paid a visit to the sushi master and his son, also a chef, and has this report:

In Japan, there are about 30,000 sushi shops, but there's no one quite like sushi phenomenon Jiro Ono.

Still pressing rice and fish every day at the age of 87, Jiro has helped transform what was once a street food snack into gourmet cuisine.

A Michelin three-star chef, Jiro was Immortalized in a recent documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." The aging artisan draws a steady stream of besotted admirers from the U.S. and around the world, despite prices that start at almost $400 a person.

At his side is the elder of his two sons, Yoshikazu. Like the crown prince to a long-lived king, the 50-year-old heir patiently bides his time, waiting to take the reins from a living legend.

"From society's point of view, my father is way up here, up above the clouds," said Yoshikazu. "But slowly, I'm reaching his level. I'm not just riding his coat tails."

Like most men of his generation, Jiro Ono was an absentee father, a stranger to his own family, as he logged grueling, 18-hour days, year after year. This workaholic intensity was fueled not just by possibilities of the future, but harrowing memories of the past.

"I was determined to make sure my children would never have to suffer as I did," Ono said.

Jiro's own childhood was brief, cut short when his struggling family sent him away to live and work at a restaurant. He was just seven years old.

Sushi chef Jiro Ono at work. Magnolia Pictures

"I was too young to apprentice with the gardener or carpenter," he said. "The local restaurant was the only place that would take me. So that's how I ended up in this business."

Vowing never to go hungry again, Jiro set up shop in the basement of a Ginza office building, humble quarters for his now-celebrated eatery, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Endlessly honing and tinkering with ingredients, preparation and presentation, he forged a kind of sushi alchemy.

Yoshikazu and his cooks faithfully replicate Jiro's almost scientific recipes for the perfect tamago omelet, painstakingly pureed and baked without a single air bubble . . . rice boiled and seasoned in tiny batches, so that it cools to optimal temperature by the time it's served . . . delicate indigo strips of flounder, draped luxuriously like fine fabric.

Jiro's pinpoint-execution of the culinary process is absolute.

But this iron control, as some diners have discovered (to their peril), doesn't stop at the counter. Patrons must reserve a month in advance, and are expected not just to show up on time, but to consume on time -- ideally, eating their sushi no longer than three seconds after it hits the plate. Meals at Jiro's may be shorter than coffee breaks.

The father and son's fastidiousness, and their habit of scolding customers who run afoul of counter etiquette, have earned the Ono family plenty of raspberries along with praise -- and they make no apologies for it.

"People who are serious about sushi love our restaurant. Those who prefer to linger over their meals or drink, don't," said Yoshikazu. "That's why opinions about us are so divided."

It's not everyone's recipe for success. But for this sushi-making dynasty, they wouldn't have it any other way.

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