Tag Archives: food

A Passion for Perfection: Two Recent Movies About Craft

jay

Deceptive Practice

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/36319857″>Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/curiousdistribution”>curious</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Traditionally craft is learned through close contact with skilled practitioners. Currently most professionals I know have cobbled together an autodiadactic path that often consists of reading, experimenting, practice, formal classes, weekend workshops, and hanging out with others in the field. But what happens when a craft is “mastered”—however you define the term— and how do practitioners keep learning, refining and performing at peak levels? And why do they keep doing it? Both Deceptive Practice and Jiro Dreams of Sushi explore this question.

At an age when most are ready to retire, Jiro cannot stop making sushi. When interviewed, he candidly admits his family and life outside of work have suffered because of his obsession of crafting the most prefect sushi he is capable of. His Tokyo restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars. But he can’t stop, and still doesn’t feel his son, who is 50 years old and who has worked by his side most of his adult life, is ready to take over. The act of crafting is rewarding to him, but it has become such a large part of him, that he can’t let go of it. Jiro’s story bypasses much of his formative experiences, but instead concentrates on a perhaps inevitable paradox: many enter into crafts in order to reestablish some kind of physical/ mental balance in their lives, yet craft at the highest levels becomes singular and obsessive.

Ricky Jay began performing at the age of 4 (there is home movie footage to prove it!), and much of this film discusses his influences and mentors. Most of his education was informal and his skills learned through intensive practice.  He mentions he still practices card handling seven hours a day, though I wondered if this might be a bit of magicians patter. Yet Jay is not only one of the most accomplished sleight of hand magicians (he can pierce a watermelon with a playing card), he a scholar of the history of magic, writer, and actor. His books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women or Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, are facinating and well written. I had the chance to watch him perform a couple of years ago, and left more impressed than ever. I was picked from the audience to play poker with him on stage; for the finale I shuffled, cut and dealt the cards. He didn’t touch them except to turn them over. He had four aces and I had nothing.

Both films feature photography that verges on pornography in their larger than life closeups. An excusite piece of sushi glistening with a brush of shoyu that fills the screen, Jay’s incessant fondling of cards which he watches his hands by using three mirrors. Again the separation of the hand and the head is emphasized. Together these films give an unusually revealing view of the work that craft involves. Attentive practice, trying to improve and trying to maintain one’s skills are never ending. For Jay and Jiro there is no rest. There is only the need to do something very, very well. And do it again, and again, and again. Ars long, vita brevis.

Kitchen Paring Knife

I made this knife in the mid 1990’s, and have used it almost daily since then.  This knife is for paring fruit and vegetables, not the salmon colored goatskin leather in the background.  I pretty happy with the basic elements of my design: a short, narrow blade with the cutting edge aligned in the middle of a fairly chunky handle, aiding maneuverability.  I can’t remember what kind of wood I used for the handle, and it has darkened considerably, developing aesthetically pleasing wear, oxidation and staining. I’m glad this knife has held up to normal use, and sometimes abuse, like when I left it soaking in the sink overnight.

Pragmatically, handmade tools can be custom designed/made for specific or idiosyncratic uses. Spiritually, handmade tools are imbued with (for lack of a better term) an aura, reflecting the multitude of sometimes unconscious choices that the maker incorporates into the final product. So what is the does using a handmade tool—more specifically one that you have made yourself—add to this scenerio?

Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?

…………………

[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.