Experience has taught me to be wary when I hear about Japanese-Korean fusion food. Sushi in Korean/Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurants is often more about raising a restaurant's margins than a genuine interest in making sushi. Yet as a Japanese guy that loves playing with Korean flavors I know first hand that there's so much unexplored potential there.
When I first heard about the Chef Akira Back's tuna "pizza" at Yellowtail in Las Vegas, I was skeptical. A tortilla, topped with mayo and tuna, sounds like a train wreck that a strip mall chain-restaurant might come up with. But after tasting one, my doubts were put to rest, in fact it was so good I ate another one (all by myself). Each ingredient was essential to the whole and yet despite the use of pungent seasonings like truffle oil and red shiso micro greens, no single flavor was overpowering. Each bite was a blissful mix of nutty tortilla, fresh herbs, earthy truffles and vibrant red tuna that greets the back of your tongue with a flood of umami.
Chef Back is a rare example of someone who has first hand experience in a Korean kitchen, a Japanese kitchen and an American kitchen. With a reverence for tradition and an appetite for freedom drawn from his years as a professional snowboarder, Chef Back honors old-school traditions, like cutting whole live fish at his restaurant, while injecting his own style into each dish he creates.
Whether he's shredding the slopes at Aspen or carving a whole tuna with his sword sized knife, Akira Back is as unconventional as he is fierce. In Japanese, there's a term, "kahko-ii" which literally translates to "looking good", but could more aptly be translated as "bad-ass". Dressed in chef's whites and army fatigues and wielding a maguro bōchō that could give you a haircut with the flick the wrist, Chef Back could be best described as kahko-ii. I caught up with him while I was out at Bon Appetit's Vegas Uncork'd and the following is a transcript of the interview:
Marc: You have a very cool name. Is there a story behind it?
Chef Back:There's a very very long story and a very short story. I'll make it short. My father's best friend is Japanese, so my godfather is Japanese. My real name is Seung-Woo Baek. Woo means "Akira" in Chinese characters, so he used to call me Akira because he couldn't say "Seung". When I was making sushi, people called me Seung, but they cannot say "Seung" [so] they kept calling me "sang", or "song". Then one day I was so pissed off, I went and told my parents, you know blah blah blah… and then you know, my father told me hey why don't you just go for Akira. So I was like "It's cool?", cause my given first name is pretty important. And he was like "ya, go for it". If you want it, just let [Seung] be your middle name. So that's how it started. And then I become who I am now, and it's become my trademark.
Marc: What was your favorite food growing up in Colorado?
Chef Back: My moms food, no matter what. I'd bring a lot of my friends, and then eat at my house, every single person love[d] it. And so I was thinking, wow she's something…You know, how can she make everybody so happy?
Marc: Was it difficult getting Asian and Korean ingredients in that area?
Chef Back: It's only a four hour drive to Denver, so it wasn't that hard. But [in] winter time, it's hard cause, pretty much like five months you're stuck. So much snow back then.
Marc: You used to be a professional snow boarder, what made you realize you wanted to become a chef?
Chef Back: [When] I became a professional snowboarder, it was such a small small thing then, cause it wasn't really popular right? So [snowboarders] I used to look up to, they are pioneers, but they didn't make any money, they just did it for soul, like artists, you know? We didn't make enough money then, and I had to travel to so many different places. I've been pretty much everywhere, and the fastest way to make quick cash being Asian is making sushi, cause sushi was booming, that's how I started. And then, I went to Kenichi and I asked him a favor and he's like "yea just shave your head" and so that was history after that.
Marc: Although you use some Korean flavors in your food, Yellowtail is described as a Japanese restaurant. What drove your decision to feature Japanese cuisine?
Chef Back: When we actually opened, we were more traditional than now. I would say sushi and sashimi, that's 65% of the business right [now]. 35% that's the freedom of what I like to make. All the food here, I use a lot of Korean, Japanese, a lot of French techniques, but it blends, representing, America. I learned from Japanese people, so my taste is very Japanese, even though I use a lot of Korean ingredients, it becomes very very Japanese. So a lot of people come here, a lot of Japanese cusomter come, Korean customer come, nobody will really guess who make[s] the food.
Marc: How do you feel about the growing popularity of Korean food in the American culinary landscape.
Chef Back: I think it's a great thing right. It's changing, I think that Koreans should get recognized also, cause it's [mostly] been Japanese food, Chinese food, Thailand food, but Korean food is still not up. And you know I'm actually glad. A good friend of mine owns Kogi Taco, so look at him, he learned French technique for [a] long time, and then he actually went to Japan and you know he [was] trained by Mitsuba-san. So he knows too, and he said fuck it, I'm making taco's Korean style. Look at him, jackpot, same as David Chang.
Marc: What do you think of David Chang?
Chef Back: Yea, great chef you know. I cannot judge [any] chef. Because it's just like freedom, when I used to snowboard, I never judged nobody. It's just that everyone has a different taste[s]. Some people really don't like my food, and I really don't care, it's my own freedom, you know. That's what I like to do, so I keep on going.
Marc: What's a new ingredient you've recently discovered that you're enjoying?
Chef Back: So right now, we have been using a lot of microgreens, and then actually we use a lot of classical things, like just very very simple things. So simple, that you just know the taste, but we just want to twist it a little bit. And then a lot of Kaimin style fish. I don't think [anybody] use[s] it here in Vegas, but I have a source. So that kind of stuff, so simple, but people have been doing it for so long. And then you know Tuna, yea, it's stupid, but back then everybody cut, and these days, nobody cuts tuna, you get it already filleted. But I don't care what any chef says, we get the whole tuna. Oh, yea, we sweat, we break out knives, whatever. So just basic things, and we're just going back to the old style of doing it.
Marc: You've had a successful career as a pro snowboarder and have also done well in the Vegas food scene. What's next for you?
Chef Back: Ahhh you know.. next is keep going I guess, I'm happy where I'm at. But you know, it's a chef's dream, [to] own your own restaurant.
This is a true story. I came here, and I actually got a partnership with Nobu-san. If I wanted to make money and a comfortable living, I'd stay there. I came here because there's a Bellagio name behind it. I want to build my resume. And I go, hey I'm one of very few Asian guys, as a Korean, first executive chef. So that's why I came here and do what I'm doing, so far so good.
Marc: Do you have any advice for people who may be thinking about leaving their current career for one in food?
Chef Back: You know, if they really like to do it, I recommend it. But being a chef, I think it's the toughest job I've ever had in my life. It's tough. If I have a son or daughter and they want to be a chef, I would stop them for at least one month. And then if they want to do it, it's their choice. It's tough, it's like the army. You know you cannot be soft on people. So even though we're rough here, we're humans, you know if you yell at people, it's pretty tough. Kitchen is tough. And I don't know I got very lucky where I'm at, but it's a tough job. Most people they try and they quit. Or they just be line cook forever.
Marc: I know you must spend most of your time at the restaurant, but when you're not at work, what do you like cooking at home?
Chef Back: I usually don't cook at home. That's really the truth, cause you know my job for me is I have to eat. But if I cook, I cook very very simple things. I cook ramen, but not instant ramen. Yea you know, like make the stock and all that stuff. It's really tiring making food, but I love food. And you know a lot of people ask me, "What's in your freezer" that's the number one question I get. You know what's inside? Frozen pizza, like everyone else. Frozen pizza and frozen gyoza. Sometime I don't even put it in the oven, microwave, that's it.