“I needed a job, so I started working. I wanted to quit school. I did not want to go to school. I hated school!”
Chef Akira was one clueless kid, who had no idea about what he wanted to do with his future. All he knew was how much he hated school and how badly he wanted to get out of it.
Never in his life had he ever dreamt that he would become a chef. One day, he suddenly decided to work in a restaurant simply because he hated studying and did not want to go to school. An unexpected choice, that plunged him headfirst into the exciting world of gastronomy.
Today, he is a master chef who has worked tirelessly to earn his rightful place in the industry as a Michelin-starred Chef, and a culinary entrepreneur with his own distinctive empire that is taking the world by storm with 12 restaurants across the globe.
Chef admits that he was quite the rebellious and recalcitrant student. School bored him endlessly. He had no goals and not an idea about what he wanted to do. After leaving school, he had no financial means. With this stark reality looming ahead of him, he decided to take on a job in a restaurant because it “looked fun”. Kenichi in Aspen was one of his regular hangout spots, so he decided to approach them for a job.
He thought it would be a walk in the park.
But never in his life had he ever been so wrong. Nothing had prepared him for the rude awakening that awaited him. Turns out the kitchen life was nothing fun nor glamorous. For his first 3 years in the restaurant, he hated his job. He thought that his boss was crazy and every day at work was a living nightmare for him.
Today, Chef Akira chuckles when he recalls his incredible journey, one filled with a myriad of challenges. He fondly recounts his days as an aimlessly student, and later a pro-snowboarder, with a smile on his face.
Chef Akira is one cool dude. He was the first Korean-American professional snowboarder, but decided to journey from the icy slopes to the kitchen, and has never looked back since.
Chef Akira Back’s rising fame rests on his restaurant’s commitment to novelty. A mover and shaker, he redefines the industry with his adventurous entrepreneurial mindset and distinctive brand of signature flavours. As a culinary entrepreneur, Chef Akira Back believes there is always room for growth and experimentation. He constantly innovates and evolves his creations and brand by reinventing the traditional Japanese playbook of dining, bringing together the best of flavours, forms and cultures to passion a new wave of modern Japanese cuisine.
After our conversation with Chef Akira, we can only conclude: If there is anything tougher than algebra, its working in the kitchen.
1. How has your past career in professional sports aided you in the kitchen, both in mind and body?
You must be fit to work in the kitchen. Being in the kitchen cooking, is like playing sports; lots of action going on and moving around. The more you cut vegetables however, the less tired you feel.
Sports teaches you to focus. Being a baseball player, I understood teamwork. Teamwork is important in the kitchen. You need to figure out who is good at what and allocate roles accordingly.
2. As a sportsman and as a chef, you have gained a celebrity status across the board. What do you enjoy the most about being in the spotlight?
I do enjoy being in the spotlight. Almost every day, I see at least one of my regular customers. I love it when my customers recognise me. I don’t think so much about fame. However, it is only when chefs recognise me and send me their signature dishes to try, then I know I have achieved celebrity status!
Chefs are known to be “proud”. When a Chef wants to take a photograph with me, then I know I have made it. It makes me happy.
However, I am not Gordan Ramsay. I can still walk on the streets and not be recognised. I am not at that level yet. It’s not a bad thing!
3. Your first culinary job was Kenichi in Aspen as a sushi prep cook. How did working there set the trajectory for your culinary career?
I fell in love with the job…only after 3 years. I liked it little by little. When I first started, I hated fish. You work long hours and I was forced to eat fish. I really hated it. But I was hungry. I had no choice but to eat. But the more I ate it, the more I liked it. It was a tough job with long hours. I had no life. However, as I started to meet customers and talk to them, something changed. They were the main reason that I stared to like the job.
I learnt to cut vegetables and clean the rice. I thought about quitting everyday. My dad was unhappy about me choosing to work in a sushi restaurant instead of studying. I hated the job, but I continued only because I didn’t want to hear my dad saying “see I told you so”. I wanted to prove him wrong.
When I was working at the sushi restaurant, I would have to count the rice at the bottom of the floor and pick them up grain by grain with a chopstick.
I used to think my boss was psycho but now I see why he did it.
He was teaching me patience. He did it in a very old school way, yes. But this was because I was not patient. This patience I learnt, has helped me very much in the kitchen today.
4. What has been the inspiration behind the concepts of each of the restaurants?
My palate is very Korean. I grew up eating my mum’s food. The flavour is very Korean, in an Americanised way. My mother’s cooking is not very hardcore Korean. She is innovative and she makes small westernised changes to her food. If she cooked traditional Korean food, no one would like it.
My mum’s art has been a huge inspiration behind the concept of my restaurants. My mum was a painter.
Each of my restaurants around the world feature works by my mother. For Akira Back Singapore, she came to view the space during its opening in December 2016, and then painted Joy, Love, Beauty, Peace, Anger for the restaurant and brought them during her next trip to Singapore.
5. Do you think your food represents yourself? Tell us about a few dishes that are representation of yourself?
Yes, my dishes are quintessentially me.
The tuna pizza. I am Korean American. This pizza is who I am. I merge it with the tortilla. Korean people love onions, so this pizza has plenty of that. It is sweet and crunchy. I add truffle oil (which is very westernised). This pizza is easy to eat.
The Jeyudomi. This is a very traditional dish. It is raw fish eaten with chojang sauce and infused with Japanese miso. This is usually one of the first few things people eat in Korea. Chojang is a common sauce, used in Korean street food. People ask me why I would include street food in an expensive restaurant. But this sauce is like, wow! It reminded me of how I first started eating raw fish and how I slowly learnt to like it. This dish is like a memory.
Popping Candy Californian Roll. When I played baseball, we ate so much popping candy. Popping candy was so expensive but we loved it. I wanted to make a simple Californian roll more fun, so I added my favourite popping candy to it. It was a treasured childhood memory of mine. How me and my team members would pass around a packet of popping candy and share it after our baseball training.
I want to let people know that food can be fun. We want to have fun, but we are serious about our cooking.
His tenacity and fiery determination has anchored his status as a world class chef today. What an unlikely journey indeed. From reluctant student, to pro sportsman and finally top chef today.
His fearless nature has been integral in helping him to circumvent the early challenges of working in the kitchen. Sometimes, life throws curveballs our way and we end up pursuing things we never expect, but we still eventually end up excelling in. Chef is a living testimony to this. Not all who wander are lost.
If he had not been a chef, he would have been a lawyer. But Chef Akira ends off by telling us, “I am happy I chose this job. I am happy. I travel everywhere. My team are my family. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
I guess that we don’t necessarily need to be the best students in order to be successful in life!