Chef Back presents Korean flavor in freestyle
By Kim Rahn
Reenacting the flavor of Korean food and using techniques and presentation that he learned from the cuisine of Japan and other countries, Chef Akira Back’s dishes go beyond “fusion” but rather represent “freedom.”
Back, a Korean-American chef at the Las Vegas Bellagio’s “Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge, Chef Akira Back,” visited Korea late last month to present his internationally acclaimed food at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill in a gala dinner and a month-long promotion.
The star chef said he understands the traditions of Korean and Japanese cuisine but when making dishes, he doesn’t follow the exact traditional way but does it as he feels.
“I’ve lived in America long enough, so how I think is very Americanized. Americanization means a melting pot of culture. That means everything is mixed. I grew up eating my mom’s food, so I don’t deny I have Korean taste, but the visual aspects and all the techniques I’ve learned and what I believe in come from this. Everything coming together in harmony, that’s my food,” said the first Asian and the youngest executive chef at a Las Vegas hotel restaurant.
“I’m making the food how I like it. Then I try to deliver it to customers. So if you ask me what my food is, I’d say freedom. That’s what I’m doing and hopefully customers are pleased.”
For the promotion, the 37-year-old prepared a seven-course meal under the theme “Meal of Memories,” which will be available through the end of June.
The meal starts with Yellowtail’s signature dish of tuna pizza which uses grilled tortilla, thin slices of tuna, and micro shiso. This is followed by sea bream with “chogochujang” (red pepper paste mixed with vinegar), which he said reminds him of childhood memories of going to a fish market in Seoul and having sashimi.
“But I don’t want to make a huge plate (like the Korean one), I want to make a sexy plate like what I see in Japanese cuisine, but the flavor is Korean. When you eat it, it’s exactly sea bream with chogochujang. But when you see it, you’ll never guess that’s what it is.”
This twist on traditional Korean foods continues in the following dishes _ in the foie gras torchon, Back mixes gochujang with Japanese miso to make a sweet and sour flavor; he stuffs chicken with garlic and glutinous rice, and puree with ginseng water and rolls it, so the food looks like a sausage but the flavor is Korean “samgyetang” (ginseng and chicken soup).
Do the right thing at the right moment
Back, who moved to Aspen, Colorado from Korea with his family at 15, never imagined he would become a chef. He was a professional snowboarder but had to quit the sport due to injury. Then at a Japanese restaurant he encountered a chief who looked very happy, and decided to enter the culinary world.
“When I started cooking, I had no idea. I didn’t know how to hold a knife. I didn’t know what was going on. I cut my fingers so many times, I was bleeding all the time. I never wanted to be a chef but I just did it because it was the right moment for me, and that guy was cool. I wanted to be like him.”
He endured hard training and traveled to many countries to learn various cuisines, having famous chefs as mentors including Masaharu Morimoto, Brian Nagao and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa known as Nobu.
“A lot of famous chefs, they do something different. Not only cooking, but how they manage staff, how they do business, something is very different. Food is part of the restaurant environment.”
He then returned to Aspen and led Nobu’s namesake restaurant there. And in 2007, the Bellagio made an offer and he took the reins of Yellowtail that opened the next year.
The young chef presented foods which were different from what the owner originally wanted, but his creations were accepted and were successful. The restaurant has become one of the must-visit restaurants in Las Vegas. When his contract was over and he wanted to open his own restaurant, Bellagio retained him by offering to put his name on the restaurant and having him develop more of his own menus.
“When I cook, I have no boss. I don’t care what anyone says. Bellagio is a big company but I really don’t care if the president says something. They’ll think I’m crazy. I only listen to one person, the customers. Whatever they think and how they react to my food, I accept.”