When I was living in Aspen, Colorado, I knew this chef who looked really happy when he was cooking and interacting with customers – he could drink and eat freely with them. I thought this was really fun and decided I wanted to be a chef too, so I went up to him and asked him for a chance to work in his kitchen.
I had to start from the bottom, which meant that I had to do the most basic and menial of tasks at the back of the kitchen. I would be washing and chopping vegetables and picking rice off the kitchen floor with chopsticks.
To me, hard work is the edge you need. You can have a flair for cooking, but without the drive and passion to work hard for what you want to achieve, it’s hard to get far.
I never really worried [about whether becoming a chef] was the right decision or not. There’s no right or wrong – it’s what you make of it and if you turn it into an opportunity.
If I wasn’t a chef, I would be interested in many other things. I would have probably been a professional baseballer – before I took up snowboarding, I was really good at baseball and if not for my career switch as a chef, I would have probably turned professional. I still snowboard a lot with my daughter Ella, who is fast turning into an expert snowboarder, too. I have been actively practising MMA and Muay Thai as well and even recently went skydiving.
I was trained in classical Japanese techniques hence I’ve always focused on Japanese food, but I always [put] my own creative twist on it by incorporating Western influences from my life. Recently, I’ve gone back to my roots with my cuisine, and this you can see through bigger and bolder touches of Korean influences in my dishes.
[Opening restaurants in markets as varied as the US, Singapore and South Korea] is different, from logistics, to sourcing fresh produce, to creating the feel and atmosphere of my restaurants. For example, the US is a big country, so almost everything is “locally sourced”. In comparison, everything in Singapore is mostly imported. To ensure we keep to the Akira Back standards of high-quality ingredients and freshest products, my team and I have to ensure that we are meticulous. It’s not like a grocery list where you grab whatever you can find from one supermarket – it’s one produce per supplier.
For me, Dosa in Seoul, South Korea, was the toughest and most stressful [of the restaurants I’ve opened]. It was always a dream of mine to not only open a restaurant back home, but also to achieve a Michelin star with Dosa, so it was really important to me for it to succeed. But it was such a rollercoaster ride. I misjudged the Seoul market. Diners didn’t like its location which was in a basement and to my regulars, it was quite surprising that the look and feel of Dosa was different from the usual grand decoration of the rest of my Akira Back restaurants.
The success of Dosa for me meant a lot. I wanted to pay homage to my Korean roots by opening it in the Cheongdam-dong district of Seoul, where I grew up before relocating to the US when I was 14. I wanted to make a mark in my own hometown and in the local culinary scene. Many people know me as a Japanese chef, but I wanted to show that I can cook Korean food as well.
My cuisine is not meant to be hearty – it’s meant to be light and palatable, hence why I choose to serve my food in a communal sharing style. While it’s rich in flavours from various cultures, diners don’t feel stuffed after having my food.
I plan to open approximately 20 more restaurants under my brand by the end of 2019. I intend to expand in the US, Europe and Middle East. I am also going to explore my first Chinese restaurant – but that’s all I can disclose for now!
Asian food and how diners perceive it is always evolving, due to changes in our global culture and landscape for food. I have my own unique take on evolving it my own way – Akira Back-style, which is always innovative, playful and adventurous.
Going beyond a career in food and beverage, I’m also looking at opening my own lifestyle hotel brand sometime in the future. I’m always ideating and creating new things for my brand.