The former professional snowboarder and now Michelin-starred chef Akira Back has made a name for himself through his creative culinary creations.

After several injuries from seven years of snowboarding, the Korean-born, American-raised chef steered away from snow-covered slopes and went, instead, into the food-filled culinary world. Starting as a dishwasher and a cook at the local Japanese restaurant merely to supplement his income, Back slowly became smitten by the kitchenscape and found the kitchen’s thrilling spirit resonating to that of extreme sports. Three years later, he decided to get into a pro-cooking circuit and pursue a full-time career as a chef. After years of travelling and training in several celebrated restaurants in the States, today chef Back is staying primed on the world’s culinary stage due to his cutting-edge masterpieces.

Combining his knowledge of the Japanese cuisine learned from his childhood in Korea with the melting-pot flavours America has to offer, chef Back continuously tweaks and breaks up the Japanese culinary tradition and infuses it with Korean-American twists. With a mix of Asian and American upbringings, his food is a balanced yin and yang of both worlds.

Following the success of Kumi Japanese Restaurant + Bar at Mandalay Bay and the notorious Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas where he earned the ‘Best Chef in Las Vegas’ given by Las Vegas Weekly, many of his restaurants opened soon after in Toronto, Dubai and here in Bangkok, as well as the one-Michelin-starred DOSA in Seoul Korea. We got to sit down with chef Akira Back when he paid a visit to his sister restaurant “Akira Back Bangkok” recently. Read on for our full interview to know his insights, which reveal the playful personalities and inspirations lived out in his food and restaurants.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

It depends on where I’m be cooking. For Akira Back, I’ll cook modern Japanese food with Korean and American essences. If I cook at home, I’ll cook whatever. But if I’m going to Korea, I’ll definitely be cooking modern Korean food. So, my style of cooking always varies, depending on where I am. No limits.

What kind of stories are you telling through your food?

My food is reminiscent of my childhood memories. So these are the stories I’m telling through my food. It’s the way I can connect with customers.

What kind of stories do you want to tell next?

There’s really no plan. For now, I just keep on going and going and just see what will happen next because we can’t predict what tomorrow will bring.

What meal inspired you to become a chef?

Early on, I never wanted to become a chef. All I wanted then was to be a cool guy. But I ended up falling in love with cooking. Especially the part when I have to prep ingredients for the restaurant service. The long process and the concentration you have to give cutting and preparing food; the chopping noises… these things just set me free. It’s pure meditation.

Do you find it challenging having to constantly create?

Yeah, absolutely. Personally, I believe that the more you create, the fewer ideas will come in. This applies to any job. In a career, you will always face a wall or a block. And that’s when you decide whether or not you will climb up the wall or break it. Creating new dishes is not easy and it has never been easy. It’s always challenging. And as a chef, I always want to be original, but it’s hard to beat the past and the tradition where a lot of great things have already been invented before and to top that, it’s definitely not easy. The pressure is always on.

Are there any chefs that you look up to?

The chefs I look up to are the people right next to me. There are famous chefs whom I learned cooking techniques from, of course. But at the end of the day, I actually learn the most from the people around me.

Tuna Pizza
What was the best dish you created during your culinary career?

The Tuna pizza, of course. Before I came up with the recipe, I had always been wanting to make pizza that is raw and based in the memories of my childhood in Korea but I also wanted it to still represent America. So I used tortilla because I was so sick of the pizza dough everybody was using. And I just twisted American-style pizza completely by substituting tomato sauce with the umami aioli and using thinly sliced raw tuna instead of sausages or Italian pepperoni.

Your advice to aspiring chefs is to first start with sports. Why do you say this?

First of all, sport is a physical activity. Its practice strengthens both your mind and your body. And to be a chef, it’s labour-intensive and the hours are long. So chefs have to be fit. Sport also makes you move faster and in the kitchen, you always need to move fast because you are cooking for so many people all at the same time. Personally, sport also creates the teamwork spirit. It helps to build leadership and relationships with the people around you.

Any other tips for aspiring chefs?

Try your hardest. It’s cliche but it’s true. Another bit of advice would be to always follow your dream and don’t give up. Show people how hungry you are for the dream that you have. Chase it. A lot of chefs give up because there are other job opportunities opening up these days. Not a lot of chefs make it to their end goals. So my advice, always, is to not give up.

Akira Back

Here come the fun parts. 

If you were to be an ingredient, what would you be and why?

I would be jalapeño because whatever dish you put it in, the result is always good. I would also love to be garlic because it got some kicks and spiciness to it which I really love.

Kimchi or mayo?

Kimchi.

Boxing or Snowboarding?

Snowboarding.

Pasta or Tteok-Bokki (stir-fried rice cake)?

Tteok-Bokki.

Akira Back

Unexpected party. What do you cook?

Smoked salmon or whatever I have available in my fridge.

Three things that make you a chef?

A passion for cooking, common sense in the kitchen, and physical fitness.

What are the essentials in your pantry?

No matter what, I always have to have jalapeño, white onion and garlic in my fridge. Always.

It’s your last supper. What do you eat?

Whatever my mom cooks.

Last but not least, what’s for dinner?

Papaya salad.

Kankanit Wichiantanon
Writer, Bangkok
Kankanit is a writer by day and a baker by night. If there’s one thing you should know about her, it’s that she can wax poetic about food 24/7. Her daily routine is writing, cooking, eating, repeat. They are the things that inspire her from morning 'til night.