What an Editor Can and Can’t Learn from the World’s Greatest Sushi Chef

By Jack Limpert

President Obama, on his first night in Japan, is dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro, considered by many to be the world’s best sushi restaurant. The restaurant’s owner, Jiro Ono, was the star of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary film that showed how he trained his staff to produce such high quality. Here’s a flashback to a December 2012 post written after watching the film and wondering what an editor could and couldn’t learn from it.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
is a charming documentary film about an 85-year-old chef who runs a Tokyo restaurant that serves the world’s best sushi. The visuals and music are wonderful to see and hear, but I couldn’t help thinking about what an editor could learn from how Jiro Ono produces such consistent high quality. I kept thinking that running a restaurant is a little like running a magazine: You’re offering something to the public that you hope they’ll enjoy and they’ll think is worth the money, and your success depends on word of mouth and repeat business.

So I started taking notes about how Jiro did his sushi work so well:

He consistently tries to perform at the highest level.

He’s passionate about his work.

He sets the standard for self-discipline.

He’s never satisfied.

He’s always looking ahead.

Maybe, I thought, I could write something about what an editor can learn from a great chef. As an editor, I always wanted any story we did to be better than any previous take on the subject. We had to serve the reader better than anyone else, we had to publish stories that readers would talk about, we had to keep trying to make the magazine better every year, we’d be judged by our newsstand sales and subscriber renewal rate—did readers keep coming back for more?

But then a little voice said, wait a second, what an editor does is not at all like what Jiro is doing. Jiro is training everyone on his staff to think and work the way he does. That’s not at all what an editor does. An editor can get some credit for hiring interesting minds and talented writers, an editor can protect the writers from the publisher, ad staff, accountants, and lawyers, an editor can work with other departments to build readership and revenues, an editor can try to see a story with fresh eyes and help the writer make the story the best it can be, an editor can try to make sure talent gets rewarded. But an editor can’t walk around and say do it my way.

So while Jiro is the most important person at his three-star Michelin restaurant, the most important people at a magazine aren’t the editors. When I went to work on Monday mornings, I always looked around the office and thought, it’s got to be hard to write great pieces month after month—all the reporting, research, thinking, and writing— and I should do everything I can to help them. And that usually meant staying out of their way.

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