In 2013, even though I could not afford it (not like there was a time when I could afford it), I saved up my money and got a reservation at Sushi Nakazawa soon after it opened. It felt important, like witnessing the launch of a spaceship, or a president’s victory speech after a long war. I remember laughing with my partner and other patrons as we got far too drunk on our paired sake, the wide-eyed looks and guttural moans we gave each other after each course — melty fatty tuna and a scallop that tasted like it lived in a bath of sugar. The laughter and — god, really? — applause with which we all received chef Daisuke Nakazawa, who appeared at the end to serve the tamago that made him famous. Maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight, but it felt like something was beginning.
The only reason I, and everyone else at the counter, was there was Jiro Dreams of Sushi: We were not sushi experts, but the film made us feel like we were. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which was released in 2011 but debuted on Netflix in August 2012, is a film about obsession. Directed by David Gelb, it is a quiet look into the work of Jiro Ono, a then-85-year-old sushi master behind the exclusive, three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. The documentary had everything a foodie could want — a “secret” restaurant tucked away in a Tokyo subway station; a man with exacting taste; the tension of Jiro’s age and what will happen when he passes his legacy off to his sons; and an apprentice, Nakazawa, whose character arc bends towards success. And most of all, shot after pornographic shot of what was widely considered the best sushi in the world.
The film debuted to an America primed to receive it. Shows like Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Top Chef were incredibly popular, normalizing the idea that food was worthy of attention and respect. The recession had ushered in a trend of seeking out “good” food in unexpected places, which eventually inspired the rise of neo-speakeasies and other intentionally hidden spaces. People increasingly sought out singular eating experiences no matter the difficulty or cost, and made a performance of that search, posting photos to Instagram or writing lengthy reviews on Yelp: What’s the point of eating the mind-blowing tacos down a forgotten alleyway, the authentic noodles served out of a strip mall — or the best sushi in the world — if people don’t know you’re there?
Of course, austere temples to sushi existed in the U.S. pre-Jiro; the “Japanese turn,” as defined by historian Samuel Yamashita, had infused American fine dining with Japanese influence since the 1980s. But after Jiro Dreams of Sushi debuted, the game changed. In the past decade, counter after counter of Edomae-style omakase — a sushi style with origins in Tokyo, served with no menu but rather face-to-face at the discretion of the chef — has opened across the country. There is precise, pure sushi served by a master in a serene, sparse setting, with diners finagling for reservations. But most of all there is exclusivity, created by both venue size and cost. For better or worse, in the decade since Jiro Dreams of Sushi was streamed into our homes, there are more places than ever to enjoy a similar experience. And fewer people who can actually afford it.
To many, Jiro Dreams of Sushi specifically “introduced Edomae sushi culture and tradition to many people who had not been familiar with it,” says chef Yohei Matsuki of Sushi Ginza Onodera in LA, who notes that the film “showed exactly what I experienced during the time I was a sushi chef trainee.” Edomae sushi, named for Edo (the former name of Tokyo), developed during the Edo period, from around 1600 to the mid-1800s. Originally it was a street food, and according to Eric Rath, a historian and author of a series of books about Japanese cuisine, looked much different from what you’d find on Jiro’s counter. “The sushi that we’re eating today is two and a half to three times smaller than the nigiri sushi that people served around 1900 in Tokyo,” he says. “People were using smaller fish. They were not using bluefin tuna ... so it was quite different.” Importantly, rather than just serving raw fish, Edomae sushi often involves cooking or curing the ingredients first, which was initially a result of the lack of refrigeration available to street carts.
Edomae-style sushi restaurants have a storied history in the U.S., especially on the coasts, and these successes were celebrated by food media at the time. In New York City, chef-owner Toshihiro Uezu’s Kurumazushi debuted in 1977; in 1995, his omakase menu netted a three-star review from then-New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, who noted that despite the “current craze” for sushi, the dinnertime clientele was still mostly made up of Japanese guests. Chef Naomichi Yasuda opened his eponymous sushi restaurant in NY in 1999, and a New York Times review noted how it differed from previous “temples of sushi worship” with its “quiet, contemplative, austere” mood. (Anthony Bourdain was a fan.) Masayoshi Takayama, the chef behind the high-end sushi palace Masa, opened his first restaurant, Ginza Sushi-ko, in Los Angeles in 1987, also to primarily Japanese crowds, he told Eater in 2014. Masa would go on to open his flagship restaurant in New York in 2004, which became the country’s first three-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in 2009, but his influence would bolster LA’s reputation as a city that appreciated high-end sushi. “In Los Angeles ... the number of sushi shops jumped from nine in 1995 to 48 in 2015, an increase of 273 percent,” wrote Yamashita in his paper on the “Japanese turn.”
But these restaurants were largely reserved for a certain kind of savvy diner. What Jiro changed was making the style of dining mainstream, and inspiring more people to explicitly seek it out. Chef J. Trent Harris, executive chef at Mujo in Atlanta, credits Jiro Dreams of Sushi for giving Americans a greater appreciation for the craft of producing a “perfect” piece of sushi. “There was a [prior] perception of, ‘You’re not really cooking anything. It’s not that much work,’” he says of Americans’ belief that sushi was simply rice and raw fish. “They didn’t see the value of it and the labor and all the training and everything that goes into it.”
Much of the attraction of Jiro was the romantic depiction of, essentially, how fussy the whole Edomae experience has become since its street food days. Food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto explains in the film that a meal at Jiro isn’t about socializing, but having the best sake, savoring each bite, and taking in the performance in front of you. For many Americans, it was new that customers sat at a counter facing the chef and not at a table facing each other; that the chef would literally hand you, then watch you eat, each piece. The film painstakingly tracks exactly what goes into making every component, framing Jiro Ono as an exacting taskmaster without whose expertise and taste the entire production would crumble. At Sukiyabashi Jiro, the meal was served in three “movements”: classic items like tuna and mackerel, then fresh catches of the day and season, finished by a “traditional finale” of sea eel, kanpyo, and tamago. Women were given smaller portions, supposedly to complement their hand sizes. The meal was less about pleasing the specific desires of the customer than assuming the customer would be pleased with the objective perfection of the meal. Achieving perfection meant choosing the right fish, tasting the subtle differences between cuts, precision knife skills, and rice cooked at exactly the right pressure.
Gelb’s cameras gave diners the tools to ostensibly appreciate omakase as a necessary art form. “Having that entry point, so you have a baseline of what you’re going to experience, really changed the game for a lot of people,” says Harris. It gave viewers a framework for the whole experience, not just what they’d be eating, but how to act, contextualizing and calcifying it in the minds of viewers.
Josh Foulquier, who opened Sushi Noz with chef Nozomu Abe in New York in 2018, credits Jiro for inspiring “more and more people [to] develop an appreciation for what we do, and demand for Edomae-style sushi has grown accordingly.” That didn’t just affect those opening Edomae omakase restaurants in America, who now wouldn’t have the burden of educating customers on how to eat, but also investors looking to capitalize on newfound interest in that specific experience. “Today, people only want to sit at the sushi counter with the chef,” Foulquier says. “And I would say that restaurants are more comfortable leaning towards a traditional palate than before.”
It seemed for a while like every new, buzzy sushi restaurant offered an intimate omakase experience face-to-face with an experienced chef: There were Sushi Noz and Icca in New York, and in 2013, chef Hiroyuki Naruke opened Q in LA. Tokyo’s Sushi Ginza Onodera opened locations in the U.S. And Jiro apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa, who spends the entire film as an apprentice trying to master the art of tamago, and crying over it in the process, has several restaurants: After seeing the film, restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone reached out to Nakazawa, who was working in Seattle under another former Ono apprentice, and worked with him to open Sushi Nakazawa in New York in 2013. In a four-star review in the New York Times, critic Pete Wells called his four meals there the “most enjoyable and eye-opening sushi meals I have ever eaten.” In 2018, Nakazawa opened a second location in the former Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., to much controversy, and he recently had a residency at Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, as well as opened up a sake bar in downtown Manhattan.
In 2022, Grub Street wrote that Nakazawa became “a trophy destination for anyone who loved Jiro or fine dining.” It was one of many.
My experience at Sushi Nakazawa was actually nothing like what was depicted in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. As I entered, I was offered a drink while I waited in a separate room before being led toward the counter. The black-and-white bar was huge, with the cushioned bar seats and dim lighting more standard of American restaurants. From my seat, I could see into the larger dining room, as the bros around me got louder and louder with each paired sake. This was not a simple, straightforward meal focused solely on the quality of the food. This was meant to be bigger. And it seemed no question that I both could and should spend a chunk of my savings on such a rarified experience.
The fetishization of Jiro codified certain aspects of the omakase experience in the upscale American’s mind. The experience in the film was the epitome of everything the Bourdains and other professional foodies of the world had ever hyped up, everything a food experience could be — weird, rare, sublime. In America, maybe it didn’t have to be a quiet meal served in the bowels of the transit system, but some of the performative aspects of the meal had to transfer over. The experience had to be high-quality, for sure, but also stern, male-dominated, slightly sexist (I always did wonder whether I was served smaller portions that night), and most of all, exclusive — which manifests in a much different way in America than it does in Japan.
It was always expensive to eat with Jiro at his 10-seat counter (in 2019, a meal was 40,000 yen, around $360). And the restaurant is effectively no longer open to the general public — reservations have to be made by a concierge of a luxury hotel, or diners have to already be regulars or given a special introduction. “Americans don’t realize that the best Japanese restaurants in Japan are highly exclusive,” says Samuel Yamashita, “and are really not open to not just foreigners, but to people without introductions.”
America, however, is a country built on the foundation that if you can pay for it, it should be yours. So while some reservations are hard to score, the general rule is the upscale omakase experience is available to anyone who can afford it: exclusivity behind another veil. Part of that has to do with the perception of quality — after all, the amount of wild seafood doesn’t rise to match the number of restaurants vying for it. But part of it is also sushi restaurants in a certain tier setting their category’s market price; 69 Leonard owner Idan Elkon says sushi restaurants have been tweaking their prices based on what other restaurants are charging, resulting in a race to the top. In New York, $400 sushi menus have become the norm. The omakase experience at LA’s Sushi Ginza Onodera is $400; at Morihiro Onodera, $350 to $400 depending on the night’s offerings; at Mujo, $205. All of these menus include add-ons and beverage pairings that can continue to jack up the price.
Jiro didn’t just introduce an unfamiliar cuisine to most Americans; it also redefined what kind of dining is worthy of occasion, a fundamental rearranging in many minds of how a restaurant interaction should look. This is the film’s true legacy. Because of Nakazawa’s success — thanks in turn to Jiro’s influence — “sushi became the de facto status meal for people who could afford to spend $1,000 on dinner,” according to Grub Street. Masa, meanwhile, is the most expensive restaurant in America, with a meal starting at $1,034 a person, excluding beverages. “I don’t know that there are any sushiya in Japan as expensive as Masa, frankly,” says Yamashita.
To be a foodie, or whatever word you want to use for it, is to trade in cultural capital. What media like Jiro and the shows, books, and blogs that came out at the same time showcased was food as experience, that a good vacation could be measured by what you ate, and that these were treasures worth planning around the same way you would the world’s great monuments. The argument was that these cuisines and traditions and characters needed to be first documented, and then appreciated, and that anyone with taste buds could do it.
But Jiro also helped turn “foodieism” into an identity, and in the course of performing that identity, pursuit of cultural capital became more and more a matter of actual capital. It became something to consume not just with your mouth but with your wallet — the way people collect expensive sneakers or Rolexes or guns, people started collecting exclusive reservations and meals. A movie about one man’s dogged mission to make perfect sushi turned into people “appreciating” sushi so much that they were willing to spend $1,000 a person for dinner.
According to multiple chefs, those prices will only rise: Fish is getting more expensive and harder to find (thank you, climate change), and staff need to be paid a living wage. But also, menu prices need to stay competitive. The film not only normalized the idea that sushi should be exclusive and expensive, but that cost and rarity was a harbinger of quality and not the other way around. Sushi counters became the new steakhouses.
There are only so many $500-a-person omakase experiences that can exist in one country, especially one teetering on the precipice of a recession. But a decade out from the film, a newer crop of omakase restaurants is beginning to redefine the experience, attempting to cleave it from both tradition and expense while maintaining the thing Jiro Dreams of Sushi was really about — the suspense, joy, and transcendence that can happen when you put your trust into a visionary chef.
In 2021, the team behind Sushi Noz opened Noz 17, a more experimental restaurant steeped in Edomae style. Instead of $400 for the traditional 10 to 15 courses of nigiri, the menu consists of 30 courses for the same price, focused on seasonal produce and a mix of sushi, sashimi, and nigiri. “We are able to offer this menu because we know that a certain level of understanding exists within the New York dining scene — something that would not have felt possible to execute 10 years ago,” says Foulquier. “I’m curious to see how restaurants continue to experiment within the traditional omakase format over the next few years.”
At Sushi on Me in Queens, which opened in early 2020, then reopened in 2021, and is opening a second location in Brooklyn soon, a 15-course omakase has turned into a party, with live music, all-you-can-drink sake, and chefs who set things on fire, for just $89 a person. Toshokan in Austin and Chīsai Sushi Club in San Francisco, both opened in the last year, are offering intimate, inventive omakase on a far more affordable scale, with a mix of sushi and composed dishes. The courses served at these restaurants are influenced by the cuisines of Hawai‘i, Peru, Italy, and Thailand, and are more playful and experimental, while still creating the experience of sitting at a counter and being served by an expert chef. And they’re even expanding outside of Japanese cuisine entirely — Houston Indian restaurant Musaafer is planning on opening an “Indian omakase” spot in New York early next year.
Some restaurants still focus on importing a distinctly Japanese experience directly to America. But others understand that American dining expectations, though they may have been informed by Japanese tradition, remain different: Jiro ushered in an omakase boom, but “you have to interpret things [for the audience] so the feeling that’s intended and the emotion come across,” says Harris. For instance, most Edomae-style sushi restaurants in America don’t import fish from Japan, or if they do, supplement it with other more local ingredients — which adheres more to the spirit of Edomae sushi at any rate. Matsuki of Sushi Ginza Onodera in LA also says chefs are more likely to create eye-catching dishes that will play well on social media. At Mujo, Harris says, he aims to serve traditional omakase, but stresses it’s not a Japanese restaurant, and, you know, he’s white. “We always are going to stay true to the respect for the tradition,” he says, but with hospitality in mind, he errs on the side of the customer always being right. If they seem uncomfortable with a more traditional experience, he’ll change things up to make it more familiar.
These restaurants can change and experiment because Jiro made “omakase” a household word. On one hand, it set expectations that could be inaccessible for many; on the other, informing people that the experience even existed in turn inspired curiosity beyond what was shown. Anecdotally, some whose introduction to omakase came from Jiro said the film made them look at not just sushi, but every cuisine, in a new way. If they had never eaten sushi like this before, what else were they missing? What other styles of eating and preparing food were still unknown to them? Jiro may have ensured that Yamashita’s “Japanese turn” is now complete. But it set the stage for other turns, other trends, an openness to learning new traditions — and to accept that a diner’s role is sometimes to just sit and be surprised.
Lisa Kogawa is a freelance illustrator based in Los Angeles.