Arriving at Yamamori Sushi on Ormond Quay at the tail end of a busy lunch rush straight away I spot new general manager Graham Ryan, in the zone as he deals with a mix of suits from the Four Courts, young professionals from nearby creative industries soaking up the sunshine in the bamboo garden and families stopping in to recuperate after a shopping session on Henry street.
Tall with dark features, there’s a good chance that over the past few months regulars at any one of Yamamori’s four Dublin city centre venues have noticed him too.
And although 28-year-old Graham, the son of Yamamori’s founder, only took on the role of general manager last November, after returning from a five year stint working in Japan, this is far from his first foray into the family business.
“The first order that I took was on my thirteenth birthday. I was in Yamamori Noodles visiting my dad and one of the managers said ‘hey, it’s your birthday here’s a docket book!’ So that was my first day.”
Inspired by the growing Japanese food scene in London, when Graham’s dad opened Yamamori Noodles on South Great in 1995 it was only Ireland’s second ever Japanese restaurant; the first has long since closed meaning Yamamori is now the country’s oldest.
“Yamamori opened when I was only seven, so as a kid I was always in the restaurant, so it doesn’t feel like a business to me, but more like my living room.”
When they opened in the nineties Graham says the only Asian food available was Chinese, and even that was a modified version for Irish palates.
“People were definitely apprehensive about sushi. At the beginning, we didn’t have sushi on the menu every day. The demand wasn’t there and we didn’t have the chefs. But slowly over time we started doing sushi every day.”
“We used to make these match boxes that said ‘Sushi served seven days for lunch’ – that was a unique sales point back in the day!”
Keen to become involved in the business from a young age, Graham chose to do a part-time college course by night, allowing him to manage various of the individual restaurants by day.
Even though his next move took him away from the restaurants, it took him deeper into Japanese culture.
Moving to Japan via the Jameson Graduate programme, Graham’s role was to develop the brand of their sister company ‘Pernod Ricard Japan’ which he carried out for nearly four years before he was headhunted by Abinbev, the biggest beer producer in the world who were expanding into Japan at the time.
The move wasn’t such a shock to the system given that on his first visit to the country as an eighteen year old he was thrown into the deep end on a six-month homestay.
“I was very much used to Japanese food by the time I started my second stint, the first was a bit more of a challenge; a lot of broccoli salads and miso soups for breakfast!”
“I learnt a lot that time around. When I first went I wasn’t such an adventurous eater, but spending six months there it broke down the barriers. I was at that point where I was just so hungry I would have eaten anything!” he says laughing.
“So getting miso soup, sonomono salad and a piece of fish for breakfast actually became something I actually really ended up liking.”
Now back in Dublin, Graham has continued this healthy way of life, eating Japanese food at the restaurants for lunch and dinner almost every day. “And I still always start my day with a miso!”
Since he left Dublin five years ago there has been a proliferation of Japanese restaurants in Dublin, located on various points along a spectrum of quality.
Graham says that while Japanese food menus can be quite generic, there will always be the staple dishes of sushi, gyozas, yaki soba and tempura, how Yamamori differs is not only by upholding a high standard of food but also through curating a traditional Japanese experience at each of the restaurants.
Looking around Yamamori Sushi, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, there are striking examples of original Japanese artwork on display, like the 7 ‘Gods of Good Fortune’ that loom over the dining room, and an expansive original silk screen depicting Kyoto behind the bar; creating an air of sophistication and authenticity that many other Japanese restaurants lack.
“We put a lot of effort into the artwork, the quality of the music and the lighting, and one of the most important things is service.”
“Even though the restaurant and bar scene has exploded in Dublin, and it’s in a really good place right now, I still think that the standard of service can often leave a lot to be desired.”
“So that’s why we are here every day is to ensure that all those little details come together so that when you come in you get the best experience.”
That ‘we’ includes his sister Julie, who looks after the HR and manages Yamamori Sushi during the busy lunch rush. “She is like the mummy of Yamamori; she takes care of all the staff, and she’s the kind lady who pays us all!”
And, despite his increased responsibility, Graham says his dad is still heavily involved. “He sees the restaurants like his babies. They are his children as well as his actual children! He’s here every day of the week.”
Given his intimate understanding and passion for Japanese food and culture, since taking on the new role Graham says he has thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with the chefs at each of the restaurants, defining their own unique identities and creating new menus.
“People go to Izakaya to drink, so we are very much focused on serving food to go with drinks. Over at Yamamori Noodles the chef has an eye for the a very authentic style Japanese food. In the hot food kitchen, and on the main course menu, you’ll see more dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in a restaurant in Japan. Here, in Yamamori Sushi, it’s more fusion. Our chef here is quite fond of richer tastes.”
“Lots of people understand these different identities. We have customers that eat with us every day, and I’ll see them over at Yamamori Noodles on Monday, on Tuesday I’ll see them here and on Friday night they’ll be at Izakaya – it just depends on what they are looking for!”
Drawing from his experience of the restaurant and bar scene in Japan, Graham was also heavily involved in the recent revamp Izakaya; introducing a horseshoe shape bar and Victorian style lighting to enhance the drinks based restaurant experience. “People are starting to come in now not just for food, but solely for a drink.”
“We’ve also reconfigured our sushi bar there. It’s almost self standing now in the main dining room, and since we’ve made it a main feature the sushi sales have gone through the roof.”
Reacting to the changes they’ve developed a new sushi menu, while at Noodles and Sushi they are catering to the trend of sharing style dishes, what they call Japanese Tapas or ‘Japas’, recently beefing up that part of the menu at both restaurants.
Over the bridge, Yamamori Tengu, the nightclub housed in the same building on Ormond Quay, has long has attracted music lovers with its schedule of international DJs and acts, and now that its open on from Thursday to Sunday its status as a drinks destination is growing with revellers from all backgrounds.
Other plans include curtaining off the front of Yamamori Sushi in the evenings, turning the front of the restaurant with its cosy leather booths and bamboo fronted bar displaying an impressive whiskey collection, including nearly 25 Japanese varieties, into a standalone bar in its own right.
After spending so many years immersed in Japanese culture, Graham naturally took a proactive role in the organising of Yamamori’s weekly Japanese Meet Up. Taking place each Wednesday at 6pm on Ormond Quay, he says that playing a part has helped maintain his own ties with Japan, as well as developing a community here in Ireland of Japanese food and culture lovers from all backgrounds .
Speaking passionately about his plans and dreams for Yamamori, you can see that for Graham being at the restaurants is not just a job, but more a way of life.
After his morning swim he catches up on emails at Yamamori Sushi, then its onto Noodles, where he often conducts business meetings there over lunch or acts as an extra pair of hands if it gets busy. In the afternoon he usually heads back to Sushi dealing with whatever the business throws at him, ending his work day at 9.30pm, though last night it was 1am before he got home, after taking on a shift at Izakaya.
Given that he spends most of his time at any one of the ‘Yamamoris’, on your next visit you’re in with a good chance of spotting this new face of an old favourite.
Have you yet to visit Yamamori? Take a walk through the restaurants clicking on the links below.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.