We catch up with chef Akira Back to discuss his newly-opened venue at W Dubai – The Palm and discover how the former professional snowboarder came to open a chain of successful restaurants
Having been a successful snowboarder, what made you decide to enter the culinary world?
“I pursued it for the same reason that I got into professional snowboarding, which was to be cool. I moved from Korea to Aspen when I was 13 and I didn’t speak English, so I was scared of everyone and wanted to fit in with the kids who were snowboarding. So I tried it and eventually turned professional. But I only did so because I wanted to bleach my hair, meet new people and have everyone think I was a cool guy. Then, when I decided to retire, I found another role model who owned a Japanese restaurant and I wanted to be cool just like him.”
Did you have any previous experience with food, or at least cook a lot at home?
“Not at all, I never cooked at home. I hadn’t even touched a knife so I was the worst student ever. I didn’t know anything at all. I was a nightmare for the chefs as I couldn’t even boil water to make pasta or noodles. I was a spoilt kid. I didn’t even do my own laundry. So it was tough to start with and all I did was wash dishes. I had knives thrown at me, I had to count grains of rice, there was all sorts of crazy stuff. It was hell for three years, but then I honestly started to love it.”
When did you realise that you had some talent and could actually pursue a career as a chef?
“I stayed in my first job for seven years and was even offered a partnership but I wanted to learn everything about cooking. So I travelled all over America and used different names because I would work, learn everything I needed to and then quit. I even worked at more than 30 restaurants in one small town, just so I could improve my knowledge. Then I went to work for Joël Robuchon and it was amazing as his restaurant had three Michelin stars. I learnt so much and he gave me the confidence to open my own restaurant.”
Did you work under any other influential chefs?
“I really learnt a lot from Nobu Matsuhisa, especially the way he controls a kitchen. Every day I thank him for what he taught me. And also Masaharu Morimoto, he is just an unbelievable chef. Working under these culinary greats was a wonderful experience for me because as a Korean native trying to break into the world of Japanese cuisine, I knew I had to be ten times better than a chef from Japan. They both taught me technique and how to be in control.”
When did you decide to open your own restaurant?
“I always wanted to launch a chain of restaurants but my first opening was Yellowtail at Bellagio Las Vegas just after I left Nobu. I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant and it was tough at first but we started to get some awesome feedback and that gave me more confidence. It’s still doing really well today, I only wish they’d let me call it Akira Back instead as seeing your name above the door is the best feeling in the world.”
You now have several restaurants around the world and are opening eight this year alone, why did you choose Dubai?
“I’ve always loved the city and have been coming here often for almost a decade. I knew it would be the right market for me and this hotel is perfect as everyone wants to open a restaurant on Palm Jumeirah. Also, Dubai is just like Las Vegas, in that, it’s a melting pot of cultures, so people are willing to experiment with different cuisines.”
Tell us about the food on offer at Akira Back, what are some of your favourites on the menu?
“I’ve combined everything I know and have learnt as I grew up eating Korean food but my technique is Japanese. So I have merged different methods to create a unique flavour. And I don’t just think about the taste, making a dish visually appealing is equally important to me, which is why there are different textures. Combined, this creates a lot of sensation. Everything is also meant to be shared because I want our customers to experience as many different dishes as possible. We have a shabu shabu (a Japanese hotpot) that is unlike anyone else’s, a spiced foie gras with a corn croquette and two sauces that I love, and a tuna pizza that everyone must try. Not only is the dish one of my favourites, but with each bite, you see some beautiful art on the plate that was designed by my mother. Her work is actually present throughout the restaurant and it has always been an integral design element across all my venues.”
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