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Back in Korea: Snowboarder-turned-chef to stir things up with gala dinner

Star chef Akira Back is coming back to Korea. His gala dinner was scheduled for June 1 only at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill in Seoul, but the hotel added one more night after it was flooded with reservations. Provided by the hotel

The life of Akira Back, executive chef at the Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, is as diverse as his culinary repertoire.

A native of Seoul, the star chef wasn’t particularly close to kitchens during his early years. He briefly stayed in Japan to pursue a career in baseball and moved to the United States with his family at the age of 15. Living in Aspen, Colorado, Back learned how to snowboard and soon became a rising star in the winter sport.

He was featured on the cover of snowboarding magazines and spent seven years touring the slopes of Europe and Asia. But his run on the mountains ended when a doctor informed him that a serious ankle injury he had suffered would prevent him from pursuing the sport any further.

That’s when a Japanese restaurant where Back had worked part-time while snowboarding came into focus.

“I felt the adventure and thrill in the kitchen that I used to feel on the slopes and never had imagined that it would change my life,” Back wrote on his personal Web site.

Back transitioned from baseball player to snowboarder to chef by working day and night at the restaurant. He shucked oysters for months and hit the road to learn more about Japanese cuisine for two years.

And Back soon rose in the world of culinary as he had on the Rockies. He was the first and the youngest Asian chef at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, directing Yellowtail in 2007. He was chosen as a rising star by Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 2008 and appeared on culinary show “Iron Chef America” in 2008 as the first Korean-American.

His dishes are renowned for their fusion of Japanese, Korean and U.S. cuisines, such as wasabi and chojang (spicy and sweet red pepper paste) with ribs.

The Korea JoongAng Daily talked with Back, who will visit Korea later this month for a special gala dinner at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill in eastern Seoul. The following are excerpts from the interview.


Q. A documentary about your life and career that aired on national TV about a year ago was quite impressive for many Koreans who didn’t know much about you. Do you think the documentary has affected your career in Korea? Has the show led you to visit Korea more often than before?

A. I visit Korea on a fairly regular basis, so in that aspect I would have to say no. The documentary has definitely affected my career though, allowing me to get more exposure in Korea. I’ve done stuff with Arirang TV, some private companies and a few others that have contributed to this as well.


The theme for the gala dinner at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill is “Akira Back’s Meal of Memories.” What special memories do you have regarding food? And what is your comfort food?

In a nutshell, the dinner will be the course of my life and career on a plate. From my experiences as a former professional snowboarder to where I am now, the guests will get a small glimpse of that through the food. My fondest memories of food are eating my mom’s cooking as I was growing up. It was and still is the ultimate comfort, soul food for me today. You will definitely see some of that come out during the dinner.


Akira Back will present a seven-course meal by mixing Korean, Japanese and U.S. styles. The menu includes lobster with uni and pancetta chips (left); Tai snapper (center); and tuna pizza topped with micro shiso and summer truffles.

You were born in Korea, raised in the States and your specialty is Japanese cuisine. Do you see your mixed identity as an asset or is it something that makes you feel as though you are on the outside?

I truly feel that my ethnicity combined with my background, training and location makes me unique, and that’s good. I have received a lot of positive feedback on this and I have received some negative feedback as well. It can be discouraging at times, but I try to not let it affect me. I am a Korean-born American citizen working in a Japanese restaurant with a global influence. I am a true definition of an American melting pot.


How did you cope with the abrupt change in your life after quitting snowboarding and moving on to cooking at age 22?

I believe my success stems from the fact that I was willing to work hard and not quit. At the time, I needed to do something after snowboarding and decided to work at a restaurant my family used to go to. Cooking was not something I fell in love with right away, so I was just lucky, I guess.


You will present cuisines mixing Korean, Japanese and U.S. styles for the special gala dinner in Seoul. Please share some of your plans with us. Will you use different ingredients and raw materials like chojang? What’s the most important thing to consider when you are mixing different styles?

I have a very diverse background obviously, so the experiences and inspirations are there. The most important part of creating harmony is respecting the classics, history and traditions behind them. I really believe that’s where many chefs fail when they try to combine cuisines of different cultures without understanding them.


Many young Koreans dream of becoming chefs. What are your tips for them?

Find some work in a restaurant first before deciding anything else. Make sure this what you want to do first before committing time and money to school and training. That’s the biggest mistake kids make here in the States. And if you decide that you really do like it, work hard and don’t quit.


One of your dreams is launching your own brand and letting many people across the world try your dishes. How’s it going with this project? Do you plan to launch a franchise or brand name of your own and open restaurants outside the States?

It’s going well. I’m going to open a Yellowtail in London in 2013. I have a few more projects going on around the world, so things are looking real solid.

* Chef Akira Back will present a menu with seven courses. The gala dinner is available on May 31 and June 1 at 200,000 won ($172) per person, tax and service charges excluded. The menu will be available at Clock 16 th
roughout June as a special promotion. There will be a cooking class led by Back on June 4 at 12 p.m. Up to 30 people can register for the class and it is priced at 100,000 won, tax and service charges excluded. For more information about the gala dinner, call (02) 450-4516. To register for the cooking class, call (02) 450-4467.

By Sung So-young [so@joongang.co.kr]

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