Interview with Chef Akira Back: \"I started cooking just to be cool\"

Interview with Chef Akira Back: "I started cooking just to be cool"

The real success story

Text: Janice Sim

The Korean-American chef gets loose-lipped about the real reason why he started cooking

Akira Back is a brand that triumphs. Prior to setting up shop here in the prestigious JW Marriott Singapore South Beach, the famed establishment had already made its international rounds — with its presence in cities like Las Vegas, New Delhi, Jakarta and more to follow in Toronto, Dubai, Hanoi and Bangkok. Like we said, it's pretty sensational.

The man, Akira Back? Well his real name is Sung Ook Back — we later found out Akira was a nickname that translates to 'Ook' in Chinese. Tall, confident, eloquent (albeit signs of jet lag from his disposition), the Korean-born chef greeted us with a slick American accent, during his brief stint in Singapore for World Gourmet Summit 2018. At first glance, it's easy to see how Back was a valued athlete before he began his career in culinary — the well-built chef was a professional snowboarder in Aspen, Colarado, where he was raised. Fortunately for us, cooking then came into the picture, which led us to this very moment.

Chef Akira Back Singapore

Earlier on, we had sat through a special lunch at Akira Back Singapore — a menu specially created for WGS 2018; altered to exhibit Back's renowned one-Michelin restaurant Dosa in Seoul. Signature dishes at Akira Back like the tuna pizza took on an alternative presentation — shedding the fish and in its place, lay thinly-sliced Korean zucchini and king oyster mushroom with black truffle. An explosive burst of flavour with every bite. The decadent collab also sees a medium rare ribeye paired up with ssamjang sauce (gochujang mixed with miso) as well as the quintessential bed of spicy endive kimchi. Last but not least, dessert came in a dusty sphere of cinnamon persimmon tea ice cream, said to be a Korean traditional punch, sujeonghwa. 

How have things been like for Dosa since the Michelin star?
Nothing has really changed; and that's in a good way and a bad way. But there's no bad way. The good way is we have been recognised as a restaurant, and we got an award. We get recognition and for me, I respect and buy all the Michelin star chefs' cookbooks to study, so now that we're a part of them, that's really cool. 

How has it been managing it all, coupled with the growing success of Akira Back?
The actual stress level has maintained, and you always want to do something different from everybody else. Now that we're opening Akira Back everywhere, it actually gets less challenging because there's a certain system configured there. On my menu, believe it or not, everything comes from the heart. Because I do not want to change anything that I cannot prove. All my chefs could be better than me cooking wise, but if they make something, there's no way they are going to make what I am thinking or what my palate really wants. My taste is special; I was born and raised in Korea, and then I went to Colorado where I learnt traditional Japanese food. But I am American, so when you become American, it is a melting pot of culture — just like Singapore.  

Chef Akira Back Singapore

So how did cooking happen for you?  
You know, I never wanted to be a chef. I never actually even cooked at home. I pursued it the same reason why I got into professional snowboarding — to look cool and fit in. And when it became too pressurising just because I had to compete and represent the sport, I left. Then I found another role model who owned a Japanese restaurant, and I wanted to be cool just like him, which is why I wanted to learn how to cook Japanese food. It was hard — I got knives thrown at me, cigarette burns, and I couldn't even eat raw fish. Of course, I love it now. 

"I love it because it's freedom. Think about the job — you can eat, you can drink if you want, you can talk to the customers if you want."

Now that you've done it, what do you enjoy most about it?
I love it because it's freedom. Think about the job — you can eat, you can drink if you want, you can talk to the customers if you want. The main idea is if you can make a really good dish, then that dish works everywhere. That's the really cool thing. Our menu is the same everywhere, and every customer loves this place [Akira Back]. That makes us even more hungry and eager to succeed. I've met so many cool customers in my life and it's just so awesome. I would say that has really made me more driven. I am going to make better food and we want to make it the best. 

"Korean cuisine comprises of a little bit more heat and bold flavours. Japanese cuisine is on the mild side."

Akira Back's menu is Japanese but with Korean flavours. How different or similar are the two cuisines?
Of course it's very similar. The cultures are very close to each other. It's just the names that are different and how we eat is different. I would say Korean cuisine comprises of a little bit more heat and bold flavours, while Japanese cuisine is on the mild side. That's my food, with an American twist. Now sometimes even when I go to Japan or Korea, I feel that unless it's traditional, food is becoming very similar. I can eat it everywhere. Everybody's worlds are getting closer. 

Akira Back

Personal favourite dishes at Akira Back?
It has to be the tuna pizza. I like the Korean red snapper; that's the dish that I ate for the first time with my father. There's also a cho jung — a spiced rice paste with vinegar and garlic — which is a traditional way to eat sashimi in Korea. So I made that in my own fancy version. 

30 Beach Road, Level B1M,  JW Marriott Singapore South Beach, Tel: 6818 1918
Opening hours: 12pm-2.30pm, 6pm-10pm

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