One Carlo Diaz
Earlier this year, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, declared his love of Japan after an eventful trip.
Its tourism industry is thriving once more, as visitors from the UAE (making use of eVisas rolled out this year) travel for a taste of its famed cuisine, with sushi and ramen two of the many popular staples.
Sheikh Hamdan is not the only member of an Emirati ruling family who has an affection for the Far East, with Sheikh Suhail Al Maktoum even setting up his own Japanese cafe Yamanote Atelier, which specialises in baked goods, from croissants to tarts and buns.
“My fascination for the country and its culture started when I visited Japan for the first time in 2010,” Sheikh Suhail, who is the great-grandson of Sheikh Butti bin Suhail Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai a century ago, tells The National.
“Every corner in Japan has a bakery. People are introduced to the country in many different ways. There are those who are introduced to anime first, for example, but for me, it’s the culture and traditions, and eventually the food.”
The first Yamanote Atelier opened along Al Wasl Road a decade ago. The sheikh is marking the brand’s 10th birthday by launching a pop-up at Expo City Dubai this month, something he calls his “passion project”.
“We never thought it would grow to this extent,” he says. “But when we opened the first shop, people loved it and so we thought maybe it could become bigger.”
The bakery currently has seven permanent branches across the UAE and a recently opened franchise in Doha. Since its inception, Sheikh Suhail has devoted most of his time and energy to growing the brand.
The combination of his passion for Japan and his entrepreneurial mind serves Yamanote customers well. For instance, the bakery imports a custom flour mix from Japan and frequently introduces new menu items.
While he does not bake himself, Sheikh Suhail enjoys working in the space and tackling daily challenges, from the kitchen to the barista area.
He says it’s important for him to be hands-on and build camaraderie with staff, from the chefs to the servers.
Sheikh Suhail shares his passion for Japan with his wife and four children. “Only my youngest, who is two, has not been to Japan yet, but we’re going to introduce him soon for sure,” he says.
Asked what it is about Japanese culture he admires the most, the sheikh, without a pause, says: “Respect.”
Describing the East Asian country as safe – “that’s what really makes it special to me” – he adds: “When you travel to a different country, you want to travel in peace.”
Sheikh Suhail says he is motivated by his great-grandfather, who was ruler when the emirate was a burgeoning trading and pearling hub.
The discipline he was known for has been passed down from generation to generation, says Sheikh Suhail. Although the scale is different, the sheikh says in the past 10 years, he has strived to apply the same principles of hard work and passion in Yamanote Atelier, which has become a launch pad for bigger ambitions.
After a decade of focusing on baked goods, the company will shift focus and offer main courses, such as comfort food, at the pop-up. If it proves successful, it could pave the way to a new permanent venue, called Mimi San.
Some of the dishes are already available at the Yamanote Collective pop-up at Expo City Dubai, including a selection of ramen, takoyaki, seaweed salad, teriyaki steak sando and katsu chicken rice, which Sheikh Suhail says is his new favourite.
The clincher? The chef who has devised Mimi San’s menu is Masao Kikuchi, a founding member of Dubai’s Michelin-lauded ramen restaurant Kinoya.
“We want to introduce more things we love about Japanese food,” he says. His team are researching and developing ideas that will eventually be housed under the umbrella company Yamanote Collective, with a view to opening more international branches in the Gulf and beyond.
The sheikh, who visits Japan two to three times a year, remains unassuming despite the evolution of his small bakery in these past 10 years, and the weight his name carries.
“This is what our ruler showed us,” he says. “To work like a normal person and let your hard work speak for itself.”