Born Baek Seung Woo in Korea and raised in Colorado, Akira Back has been executive chef at the Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge at the Bellagio resort and casino in Las Vegas since 2008. He’s served notables such as U.S. President Bill Clinton and Mariah Carey.
Back trained with some of the best chefs in the business, including Masaharu Morimoto, Nobu Matsuhisa and Brian Nagao. He also competed against Bobby Flay in an episode of Iron Chef America. He makes himself available to the public via his own YouTube channel, Facebook page and blog.
He will be a panelist at the Asian Feastival in Queens, New York, on September 6th.
Chef Back was kind enough to answer a few questions for ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal.
How do you define your cuisine?
I consider my cuisine as pretty much a “melting pot.” You can call it new American cuisine, neo-American cuisine, whatever. Most people see my menu and immediately say, “Asian,” “Japanese,” etc. What they don’t understand is that Japanese is just a part of it. I incorporate a lot of Japanese, Korean, French and some classic American into my cooking. If you look closer, you can see it. It’s there.
How has being raised in Aspen, Colorado, rather than in Los Angeles, Hawaii or New York, influenced your cooking style?
Being raised in Aspen and being a former professional snowboarder has definitely influenced my cooking. Many of my dishes are influenced from my family and travels, all of which has been based out of my time in Aspen. It’s the culture there—the people, the environment. It has taught me to cook from the heart and to make food that can give the person eating it a little bit of insight about me.
What do you think of America’s increasing interest in Korean food?
As a Korean-American, I say, It’s about freaking time! It’s definitely a step in the right direction in showcasing Korean cuisine in the mainstream food scene here in the U.S.
Is there any downside to this development?
I would say a bastardization of classic Korean cuisine is the major downer. It’s like what happened to Chinese cuisine when it became popular in America. I would guess that around 85 percent of Americans don’t know what real Chinese food is due to all the knockoffs that are being labeled as “Chinese cuisine.” Korean food is not quite on that scale yet, but I think it’s definitely going to be headed in that direction.
What do you think of the Korean government’s efforts to promote Korean cuisine worldwide?
I think they are doing a great job. It’s absolutely positive effort to put Korean food, culture and chefs in the spotlight. In the past, Korea was shadowed by other larger, more popular Asian countries such as China and Japan. The Korean government knows this and is pushing Korean cuisine as much as it can and supporting Korean chefs by putting them in the spotlight. I love it. It makes me proud as a Korean-American here in the U.S.
Check out an example of chef Back’s neo-American cuisine in this video he posted on YouTube.
If you want to hear more of what Back has to say about the future of Asian cuisine, go to the Asian Feastival on Sept. 6 in Queens from 3–3:45 p.m. He’ll be discussing “The Next Generation of Asian American Cuisine” with Eddie Huang and Lee Anne Wong.