Netflix Instant Files: Foodie Documentaries Edition

jiro dreams of sushi shopsins

Netflix Instant currently has two different movies — I Like Killing Flies and Jiro Dreams of Sushi — that work well together as a double feature for any foodies, documentary fans, or those interested in character studies.  One film is set in New York and the other in Tokyo, but they’re both about famous word-of-mouth restaurants and the strong personalities that steer them.

jiro dreams of sushi shopsins

The staff at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Ono Jiro, and his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, are famous in the foodie world.  The restaurant has three Michelin stars, and multiple chefs have declared Jiro the foremost artist of sushi.  But it’s a tiny restaurant operated out of a subway station in Tokyo, not the sort of place one would expect to find a master.  You also dine by Jiro’s rules.  Reservations must be made months in advance, and there is no menu.  Eat what’s placed in front of you, following the prescribed etiquette.

Shopshin’s, the subject of I Like Killing Flies, isn’t all that different.  There might not be any fancy accolades, but the similarities are still there.  Shopshin’s is a tiny cafe run by a very strong personality, Kenny Shopshin.  Making it through the door is a challenge; Shopshin’s has a laundry list of rules.  The best chance anyone has of getting a seat is to accompany an insider, a favored regular who knows all the rules.

If you’re successfully served, then you’re rewarded with a menu hundreds of items long.  Kenny Shopshin creates what he feels like each day, and popular creations get added to the menu.  If you’ve heard of the macaroni and cheese pancake, you have Kenny Shopshin to thank: he created it for a regular who always ordered pancakes or mac and cheese; one day the customer couldn’t decide which he wanted, so Kenny made him both.

The rules at both restaurants are dictated by the personalities of their owners.  Jiro has devoted his life to the study of sushi.  He knows it better than you or most others ever could.  If you’re coming to his restaurant, you’re not just going for sushi: you’re going for an artistic experience performed by a master.  What’s the need for a menu?  You’re in far better in Jiro’s hands than your own.

jiro dreams of sushi shopshins kenny work

Kenny Shopshin at work.

Shopshin’s rules follow similar personality lines, though less logic.  The restaurant doesn’t take parties above four.  You could be kicked out at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to Kenny.  You’re far better off eating at Shopshin’s accompanied by a regular, or at least by someone who’s eaten there before, than as a first-time walk in.

But Shopshin’s regulars love the restaurant just for that prickly personality, and the creative, thoughtful food.  That’s the atmosphere Kenny cultivates, and that’s what people go for.  His character is also evident on the eatery’s official website, which looks far more like a personal tumblr than a website for a restaurant.

I Like Killing Flies is structured around Kenny’s personality.  There’s no narration to the film: just a single camera pointed at whomever is talking.  It’s a series of interviews with Kenny, his family (who help him run the restaurant), and regulars over the course of a critical few weeks in Shopshin’s history.  We don’t get a clear narrative arc from beginning to end, but we know who Kenny is, who his family is, what sort of restaurant they run, and the type of people that like to eat there.

We hear Kenny’s ramblings on his philosophies about the food industry, his customer service policies, life in New York, and the world in general.  We understand why he makes the type of food he does, and, at least in part, why his restaurant has such bizarre rules.  After finishing the film I looked up his restaurant on Yelp; the reviews were mixed, with some people complaining about the rude service, and others thinking it wasn’t rude enough.  I almost felt like laughing to myself: Kenny’s mercurial temper is famous – even New York City guide books caution about it – so it seems like folly to go to his restaurant and complain about the service.

sushi jiro dreams of sushi shopsins

Mmmmmm. *drool*

The movie scared me away from ever eating at Shopshin’s, but it also made me love a restaurant at which I’ve never ate.  It didn’t help that many of Kenny’s dishes look absolutely delicious.  Some impossible to identify without help, yes, but delicious all the same.  That’s another thing I Like Killing Flies shares with Jiro Dreams of Sushi: food porn.  Jiro and Kenny make very different types of food, but both make you wish you could reach into your screen and grab it for dinner.

Both films are also centered on family.  Sukiyabashi Jiro and Shopshin’s are both family-run restaurants.  Jiro’s eldest son works with him, waiting to take over the family business, and Jiro’s younger son runs a different branch of the restaurant across town.  All of Kenny’s children work at Shopshin’s with him, many even cooking with him in the kitchen.  Both establishments have other employees, but the dynamics of working with family play out in both films.

If either film has an overall theme, that’s it: learning about the man behind a famed establishment, and how working with his children affects, enriches, and often brings conflict into his daily life.  Jiro’s eldest didn’t want to learn the sushi business, but his father made him.  Now he feels like he’s spent decades of his life waiting to take over the business, something his father promised him, and it will never happen.

Yoshikazu jiro dreams of sushi shopsins

Jiro and his son Yoshikazu at work.

The atmosphere is both more and less comfortable at Shopshin’s.  Kenny fights with his children — a couple nasty rounds are caught on camera — but there is also a lot of open affection between the family.  It shows that food, love, the kitchen, hearth, and home: these are all things that intrinsically go together.

Regulars at both Jiro’s and especially Shopshin’s are like family.  They head to these restaurants for the delicious food, but also for the men behind them.  They want the experience of eating there, and that includes trusting Kenny or Jiro to decide what you should eat.  Trips to Jiro’s or Shopshin’s aren’t just meals out, they’re individual culinary experiences: both very different, but in that way, both the same.

 

You can stream both documentaries on Netflix.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available for purchase or rental on Amazon, and I Like Killing Flies is available for purchase there.