Akira Back On His Snowboarding Past And Being On Iron Chef America

We approach Korean-American chef Akira Back to find out more about him, his heritage, and how he put a snowboarding career on hold to become a chef.

2018-05-02 17:08:36 2018-05-02 17:10:49

Japanese restaurant Akira Back is a familiar name in some parts of the world for its take on modern Japanese cuisine, with branches in New Delhi and Jakarta as well as additional locations opening in Toronto, Dubai and Bangkok. With Korean and Western influences, Akira Back aims to challenge boundaries in Japanese food, with a list of creations that go beyond the classic offering of sushi and hand rolls.

(From left) Toro Caviar, 48 Hour Tajima Short Rib and the Wagyu Tacos
(From left) Toro Caviar, 48 Hour Tajima Short Rib and the Wagyu Tacos

Among the dishes being served up at this location are the Toro Caviar, 48 Hour Tajima Short Rib and the Wagyu Tacos. Seasonal and fresh produce is key to the menu offering, while beverage options will include wine selections as well as Akira Back branded sake by the bottle or by the glass.

Chef Akira Back behind the scenes at his eponymous restaurant
Chef Akira Back behind the scenes at his eponymous restaurant

“The biggest difference at Akira Back will be the experience of discovering the flavours that I put together. My cooking reflects my personality and the influences around me, and it will never be at a standstill because I’m always exploring,” says Chef Akira Back, brand owner of his eponymous restaurant.

The Korean-American chef was raised in Aspen, Colorado, and has held numerous positions in restaurants specialising mainly in Japanese cuisine around the world. Back has been awarded the title of “Rising Star” by Restaurant Hospitality (2008) and has had the distinct honor of hosting the prestigious James Beard House dinners (2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012, 2013 & 2014). Since opening Yellowtail Restaurant & Lounge in 2008, Chef Back has been named “Best Chef in Las Vegas” by Las Vegas Weekly. Back is also a regular of sorts on television, having appeared on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” where he battled Iron Chef Bobby Flay. Back has also appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” The Cooking Channel’s “United Tastes of America,” as well as KBS’ “Success Mentor” which airs in Korea.

Akira Back in Singapore: an Interview 1

Surprisingly enough, Back started off his career not as a cook, but a professional snowboarder – he picked up cooking only as a side job to help fund his sports career. We have a chat with him to find out more.

You’ve probably been asked this question a lot, but how did you go from snowboarder to chef?

BACK: When I was younger and my family had just moved to Aspen (this was when I was around 14), snowboarding was my way of fitting in and being ‘cool’.  I was quite good at it and went on to become the first Korean-American professional snowboarder. But over time, I felt stifled – I liked the sport but it had become more commercial and less about passion. I did not enjoy the commitments imposed on me. At one point, after an injury, I felt that I’ve had enough and decided to move on. At this point I was around 18 or 19.

At that time there was a Japanese Chef who was quite well known in Aspen, whose restaurant I frequented. I felt that he was quite a cool character, he’s always smiling, talking to his customers… He left quite a deep impression on me, and I felt like wanted to be someone like him. I asked the chef to train me – the first thing he said to me was “shave your head” (I had bleached white hair then), which I did. He took me a bit more seriously after that but I still had to keep begging him for about two weeks before he agreed to take me in as an apprentice. I started there, have kept at it since, to where I am today!

Are there any similarities between snowboarding and cooking?

BACK: Yes, both are challenging and fun, but also involve a lot of hard work, and you have got to be very focused in what you want to do.

What do you do in your free time now? Do you still snowboard?

BACK: Yes I love snowboarding, and still do it as a hobby.

You’re born Korean but you were raised in Colorado. Now you’re running a Japanese restaurant. Do you find it hard bridging these cultures?

BACK: Not at all. To me, it gives me added perspectives to issues. Primarily, I’m very American-minded, but I also have an Asian perspective.  Outwardly, the American side of me might say “whatever” to a problem but it’s not really whatever. Later when I think about it the Asian side of me works to tackle and solve challenges.

So, what’s your favourite food?

BACK: My mother’s and my wife’s cooking!

I heard you have a sake made specially for you. How did that happen?

BACK: The Nanbu Bijin brewery in Iwate prefecture is a well-respected family-owned brewery that has been making fine sakes for more than 100 years.  The former master brewer (Toji), Hajime Yamaguchi, was considered one of the highest regarded master brewers in all of Japan, and the brewery has never produced any sake for export.

I’ve always liked their sakes and when there was an opportunity, I approached them personally and managed to negotiate for a partnership for an exclusive label that’s only available at my restaurants worldwide.

You’ve been on Food Network, KBS and competed in Iron Chef. Are you surprised by far you’ve come from where you started out, snowboarding?

BACK: Yes, considering how in the beginning I never cooked and didn’t even like cooking! Now I find a lot of peace and fulfillment in the quiet hours before my restaurant opens, while I’m doing my preparation for the day. Things are changing every day and we have to always learn new things and evolve.

You’ve just been awarded your first Michelin Star. How does that feel like?

BACK: It has always been one of my goals and it’s a great achievement for a chef to achieve a Michelin Star. It is quite hard to put in words. I have friends who tell me that once I have gotten a star, I will want more. But I don’t think I am like that. I am immensely proud and grateful to be awarded the honour – especially at DOSA, a Korean restaurant in my country of birth.

Hung Ping loves all things life. A former hardcore Science student, he is now a semi-serious writer of poetry and enjoys cycling down East Coast Park. He likes cooking too.