From Mountain Terrain to the Culinary Domain
Chef Akira Back comes from a background that spans South Korea, Japan and the U.S. and crosses the domains of baseball, snowboarding and cooking. Back was born in 1974 as Sung Ook Back in Seoul, Korea. He pursued his love for baseball at a young age by moving to Japan, where a family friend gave him the nickname “Akira,” as the Japanese name shares the same Chinese characters as “Ook.” In 1989, his father’s business took their family to the U.S., where his snowboarding career began at the age of 15 in Aspen, Colorado. He then spent seven years as a professional snowboarder, where he appeared in extreme sports movies and was featured in the top snowboarding publications. His career then took a new path after studying at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Colorado as a sushi prep cook at Kenichi in Aspen, followed by Austin, Texas and then as an opening chef in Kona, Hawaii. He continued his culinary education by studying under top celebrity chefs and industry leaders including Masaharu Morimoto and Brian Nagao. In 2003, he returned to Aspen as Executive Chef of Nobu. In 2008, he opened his first restaurant — Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge, Chef Akira Back at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. The restaurant’s Japanese cuisine has attracted various celebrity clientele including Taylor Swift, P!nk, Kelly Osbourne and Joe Jonas. He has appeared on television in the U.S. on Iron Chef America, The Today Show and The Best Thing I Ever Ate, as well as on South Korea onKBS’s Success Mentor. Chef Akira Back is now going international with Akira Back restaurants opening in New Delhi and Jakarta. Back took a few moments from his busy schedule to talk about his shift in careers and new projects with Seoul Journal.
SJ: How does the thrill of snowboarding compare with your accomplishments in the kitchen?
BACK : They are both exhilarating and demanding. Snowboarding is a solo sport where I am myself against the mountain terrain. In the kitchen, there’s so much more to it. You have to perfect every detail. The hard work not only comes from me, but from my staff and management teams.
SJ: What inspired you to change from snowboarding to a career in the kitchen?
BACK: I am always up for a challenge and at that point in my life I wanted something more.
SJ: What obstacles did you face when shifting careers?
BACK: They are just so different that it’s one extreme to another extreme.
SJ: Why do you travel so extensively?
BACK: I get inspired by different cultures and all the different things I see while traveling abroad.
SJ: What is one ingredient that you cannot live without?
SJ: What kitchen tool do you think is indispensable?
BACK: A knife.
SJ: Do you have a process for introducing new dishes to your menu?
BACK: I get ideas from the dreams I have and sometimes they make it to the menu.
SJ: Can you tell us about the experience of being on Iron Chef America?
BACK: Competition is in my blood, no matter what I do.
SJ: What would be your ideal meal?
BACK: Anything that my mom makes.
SJ: Who inspires you?
BACK: My mom’s art — she is a painter.
SJ: you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
BACK: We’re opening up in Dubai soon.
SJ: What has been your proudest achievement?
BACK: Opening restaurants with my name on them.
SJ: What are your goals for the future?
BACK: To continue opening more restaurants.