[Herald Interview] Chef Akira comes back to Seoul

By Im Eun-byel

Adrenaline-fueled chef practices ‘modern Japanese cuisine with Korean essence’

  • Published : Mar 14, 2019 - 14:57
  • Updated : Mar 14, 2019 - 16:10

A Korean-American chef, charged with adventurous energy, has made his way back home.

Michelin-starred chef Akira Back (whose Korean name is Back Seung-wook), 45, running his own namesake restaurant brand across the world, added one more Seoul eatery to his impressive portfolio, recently opening a new Akira Back restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul.

Chef Akira Back speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his new namesake restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul on March 7. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

He practices Korean-inflected modern Japanese cuisine. It takes more than a few words to explain what Akira Back restaurants are like, but words like “contemporary,” “innovative” and even “badass” come up.

“I want to say our vegan dish is badass, our meat is badass, our traditional sushi is badass, our modern cuisines is badass,” the chef said during an interview with The Korea Herald held on the opening day on March 7.

“I do not want this to be just a Japanese restaurant,” he said. “I want everybody to come here for the food, not just the sushi.”

Akira Back Seoul is certainly not a run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant seen at other hotels. The eatery has the “Sex and the City” vibe with loud, hip club music in the air.

The space is charged with a Vegas mood. Well, the chef actually hails from Las Vegas. Among his global portfolio are Yellowtail at Bellagio and Kumi at Mandalay Bay, both famed high-end fusion restaurants, not to mention the restaurants in Toronto, Dubai, Singapore, Jakarta and more.

“A lot of Japanese restaurants in hotels are very classic, traditional -- very hardcore-sushi,” Back said. “We are going to be different. I am a Korean-American and I will make sure I blend in everything I have.”

Back knows what he is saying. His creations are certainly a mix of everything. It is Japanese, but also Korean. It is also Nobu-styled, hinting back to the chef’s earlier days working for celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, known for his fusion Japanese cuisine.

It may be hard to specifically categorize the cuisine style that he pursues, as it is a fusion of everything.

“Hopefully as the brand gets bigger and bigger, everyone will know exactly what we are talking about. When Nobu started it, it was the same. Nobody understood what modern Japanese cuisine meant. Now everybody knows Nobu,” he said.

“I hope we can make a trend (and lead) other restaurants to change. It might be little bit ahead, but I like to gamble. I did a lot of things way ahead of others,” he said.

The famed tuna pizza, a tortilla topped with mayo and tuna, is on the top of the menu. Though named pizza, it actually is more like a fresh tuna canape that serves as a great delicacy for kicking off the start of an exciting culinary experience. 

Tuna pizza (left), the signature menu item of Akira Back restaurants, is a tortilla topped with mayo and thinly sliced tuna. (Four Seasons Hotel Seoul)
Signature roll (Four Seasons Hotel Seoul)

Kimchi edamame is a reflection of the chef’s family history. Steamed green pea, often served in Japanese restaurants, is soaked in kimchi paste here, lubricating the appetite.

“All my food is meant to be shared, very small, very sexy. I hope one can visit the restaurant with friends and try at least six dishes or so,” he said, adding, the customers can come as they are, perhaps in shorts, T-shirts and sandals.

“You want to dress up super cool? That’s fine. You don’t want to dress up, just sit back and relax? That’s fine, too,” he said.

The casual, laid-back attitude perhaps hints back at the chef’s teenage years.

Born in Korea, Back and his family moved to Colorado when he was a teenager. Before joining the culinary scene, he was a professional snowboarder. He had to quit the life on the slope after getting hurt in an accident.

Then, he joined sushi master Kenichi Kanada in Aspen. Not particularly because he had interest in cooking, but just wanted to start a job. But as we all know how the story turns out, he falls in love with life in the kitchen. After successfully building his career under Kenichi, he moved on, working under chef Nobu.

To celebrate the opening of Akira Back Seoul, his parents visited Seoul, their hometown

“They were very happy with this. They always asked me, ‘When are you going to open an Akira Back restaurant in Seoul?” he said. “It is actually better that we came here after some time. Now Akira Back brand is more established.”

Back is experienced with Korea’s fine-dining scene, owning Dosa in Seoul since 2016. The contemporary Korean restaurant, situated in the affluent neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong, has been flying high since debut, even earned a Michelin star in 2017.

From his years with Dosa, Back evaluated Korea’s fine dining scene to be “very competitive.”

“It’s like New York, but in a way, even more challenging,” he said, citing no call no show customers. “You have to be really good to make customers come.”

“Ten years ago. I might have been very judgmental, thinking, ‘The kitchen staff do not know anything.’ But now it’s different. They are really good,” he said. “A lot of people studied abroad and came back home. They are really good. They have their own identity and they are trained well.”

The mega-restaurateur has big plans for Korea, planning to open three or four more restaurants here, including a lounge bar and a Korean barbeque restaurant.

“I have always wanted to open a Korean BBQ restaurant here. I want to know if my taste works in Korea. It is challenging but that is why I want to try this,” Back said.

“I’d love to open Dosa in America, I am working on it. This time, we will be chasing the big star. This time, I am ready,” he said.

By Im Eun-byel (