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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Akira Back's journey from pro snowboarder to Michelin-starred chef

The popular American chef will open his first Middle East restaurant in Dubai later this year

You may not have heard of Seung-Woo Baek. But if you’re an American or a foodie, you are likely to know him by the name Akira Back. The Michelin-starred chef has been a regular fixture on television in the United States, and is behind two of Las Vegas’s leading Japanese restaurants: Kumi in Mandalay Bay and Yellowtail in the Bellagio. He has also opened eateries in New Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok and Seoul, and the next venue to have his name over the door will be in Dubai, in the soon-to-open W Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah.

“There are a lot of similarities between here and Vegas,” he tells me during one of his visits to check on progress before the hotel’s scheduled opening in September. “The vibe, the landscape, the buildings and the fact that both cities are huge cultural melting pots and tourist magnets.”

Culinary exploration is what gets this man excited, and he’s looking forward to catering for a new region.

A different aspiration

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Back didn’t have any interest in fine cuisine as a youngster and his career path has been nothing if not unpredictable. “When I lived in [South] Korea,” he says, “all I wanted to be was a baseball player and I’d planned to go and live in Japan. But my father decided it was better for his kids to live in America, for our education, so we moved there when I was 14. I couldn’t speak any English – if the phone was ringing in the house I was too terrified to answer it. And we had moved to Aspen in Colorado, where everywhere and everyone was white.”

He’s referring to the fact that for much of the year, Aspen is covered in snow and is one of America’s most popular winter sports destinations. His father was partner in a company called Bollé, which manufactures sunglasses and goggles, so the decision to move to Aspen makes sense. But Back says he was desperate to fit in, which meant learning to speak English as quickly as possible. “All these kids around me with cool Mohawk hairstyles, so many pretty blondes, they were all into skateboarding and snowboarding, so the way to get in with these guys was obvious. I wanted to be cool, wanted to learn English, and this was the way I chose to do it, by taking up snowboarding.”

His talents for the sport were such that he competed professionally for seven years, realising along the way that he needed to supplement his income. Not wanting to be a drain on his parents’ coffers, he began working at Kenichi, a Japanese restaurant in Aspen. “Chef Kenichi [Kanada] was such a cool guy,” he says, “and when I saw the way he interacted with his customers and had fun, it made me want to be like him. So, in a way, I started working with food for the same reason I got into snowboarding: I wanted to be cool. I asked him to teach me and he agreed, on the condition that I shaved my head, because I think my hair was blue at the time.

Falling in love with cooking

“Up until [starting that job] I’d never held a knife, never washed dishes or even my clothes – I was so spoiled by my mum. That was the beginning of me experiencing real life and I hated it.”

By then his English had come on in leaps and bounds but, he admits, a lot of it was snowboarder speak. “If someone spoke to me in business terms, I’d say ‘yeah, bro, whatever’, but I’d have no idea what had just been said. Everything was ‘rad bro, yeah let’s do it’, but in the kitchen, that’s where it all changed – it had to, it’s vital to be able to communicate properly in there.”

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It took, he says, three years to fall in love with cooking and once he had come to the conclusion that it provided him with the same sorts of thrills as pro-snowboarding, he took the decision to make it his career. For Back the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

He stayed with Kinichi for nearly ten years, working his way up from washing the floors and cutting vegetables, and eventually was skilled enough to help with the opening of two of the chef’s restaurants in Austin, Texas, and in Hilo on the island of Hawaii.

After that, he “started moving around”. He’d had no formal training whatsoever but decided to go to college and study catering anyway, even though he’d already risen to the position of executive chef. “I’d promised my parents that I would go to college, so I did. And I was lucky because the restaurant I was working in was really cool and a lot of the tutors would come in to eat, so I got a lot of breaks.”

Becoming a world class chef

Back went on to become the youngest executive chef under the tutelage of chef Nobu Matsuhisa and has worked closely with chef Masaharu Morimoto (both of whom have opened establishments of their own in Dubai), but Las Vegas was the city that got its hooks into him.

“It’s been 11 years since I started my own thing there, responsible for every aspect of the business, and after running the two restaurants there we branched out to India, which was six years ago. The business was slow to grow at first but after we got the Jakarta one right, things have been moving crazy fast.”

His enthusiasm and skills made him a natural for television and he’s starred on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, NBC’s The Today Show, the Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America, as well as shows aired in Korea. But he says that his success has been tied into his insistence on using only the very best ingredients, as well as the incorporation of rare and exotic foods into his dishes. “In Dubai that’s achievable because the standards here are as high as they get. People in this country are very educated when it comes to food.”

An appearance on Iron Chef America:

That high quality helped win his new restaurant in Korea a Michelin star last autumn. But if you’re searching for a label to attach to what he does, “fusion” would be a disservice. To stand out from the stiff and well established competition, Back knows he needs to offer something unique and, in that respect, he admits there’s synergy with W Hotels: youthful, vibrant, dynamic, different and growing. “We have 10 restaurants now. By the end of this year, if all goes to plan, it’ll be 14, but the one I’m most excited about is Dubai.”

Roll on September.