“Before I become a chef, I never cooked. I didn’t even touch water. Never did laundry. My mom did everything for me. So I was a very very spoiled kid. I still don’t do laundry,” says the Seoul, Korea born Michelin Star Chef Akira Back with a hearty laughter. Chef Back was in Dubai recently to launch his eponymous restaurant at W Dubai, Palm Jumeirah and was kind enough to share with Signé his story and the philosophy behind his restaurant in Dubai.
“It is about me. When customers walk in, I want them to experience what I would like to experience, how I like to eat. The decor, the plates, the cutlery and others are all my mom’s art. I asked her to do it because that’s what I would like. She made me what I am”.Chef Akira Back
“Coming to my restaurant should be like coming to my house. The only difference is that here I have to charge you,” says chef Back with a wry smile.
“I grew up eating my mom’s food, and I still eat my mom’s food. So the base of my cuisine is very Korean but is blended with the Japanese techniques I learned, and with the American cuisine because I have lived there for a long time. Everything on the menu is meant to be shared and to make sure that everybody can eat. I don’t like it when one or two persons in a group have to compromise because they are vegan or prefer to eat fish or meat and so on. Also, the presentation is designed to make every dish easy to eat because I don’t want my customers overthinking about how to eat.”
Born in 1974, Chef Back wanted to play baseball professionally in Japan. His father’s business, however, took the family to Aspen, Colorado, where he caught the snowboard bug and became a professional snowboarder. He even appeared in extreme sports moves. To make ends meet, he began working at local restaurants. After seven years on the pro-snowboarding circuit, Back decided to pursue a full-time culinary career as a chef.
He studied at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Colorado, and in 1993, began working as a Sushi Prep Cook at Kenichi in Aspen. Through the next fifteen years, chef Back had appointments in locations all around the world under renowned chefs. Then in 2008, he opened his first venture, the famed Yellow Tail Japanese Restaurant by Akira Back at Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Today, Chef Back’s portfolio includes thirteen restaurants including Kumi Japanese Restaurant by Akira Back at Mandalay Bay, Akira Back Restaurants in Toronto, Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Jakarta, New Delhi and Dubai with additional locations opening in San Francisco, Beverly Hill, Bali, San Diego, and Dallas. His newest concepts include AB Steak in Jakarta and ABar in Bangkok.
“I have eight openings this year, and Dubai is the first. Nobody has ever done it. I’ve been coming here for seven years, looking for the right partners and the right place. Now we have a great partner and a great place,” says chef Beck when asked about his expansion plans. Then adds: “I’m really lucky that everything we did worked out well. Also, we’re very calculating in everything we do. We have a great team, and I truly believe in my team. Honestly, I don’t have to worry so much. If I were so worried, I’d now be drinking somewhere. All I have to worry about is one thing: are we giving our best service.”
Going by the accolades, one would have to concur. Chef Back’s famed Seoul restaurant DOSA was awarded one Michelin star in 2018. This was in addition to being named “Best Chef in Las Vegas” by Las Vegas Weekly and “Rising Star” by Restaurant Hospitality in 2008. He was also a finalist in Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”
What is chef Back’s secret to maintaining high quality during a period of rapid expansion? “We have a 100 per cent scientific approach to preparing our dishes. Everything is accurately measured. But of course, science has to be merged with the heart. My mom is not a chef, and she never measures the ingredients, but how come her food tastes so much better. That’s where passion comes in. I have guys who love to cook, but if I find that passion is missing, I switch them around or ask them to take a break.”
We asked chef Back to recommend some of the signature dishes on his menu. “Everything on the menu is a signature because nobody else has it,” he shot back with triumphant laughter. Then adds: “if you come here you have to order the tuna pizza or the mushroom pizza. Both are my mom’s favourite. If you don’t like the taste of raw fish in traditional dishes, then I recommend you try Jeju Domi, that’s how I learnt to eat raw fish. We have a different sauce for every variety of fish served. We extensively use natural seaweed to enhance the flavour of our sauces. I also recommend the Truffle Bomb which has Sea Urchin, Sweet Shrimp, Gejang, Smoked Potato Foam, and even Caviar.”