For the intensely driven Akira Back, the Strip isn’t the destination — it’s only the beginning
It’s November and chef Akira Back is texting me pictures of his new restaurant. It’s called Akira Back, and it’s inside the JW Marriott Hotel Aerocity in New Delhi. It looks sleek and modern, beautiful in a minimalist way, not unlike his two Las Vegas restaurants. The menu is similar as well, plenty of colorful sushi and sashimi dishes, plus a bit of Korean sneaking into the Japanese — some spicy and sour flavors representing Back’s native cuisine.
Did I mention it’s in India? It’s November and Akira Back is in India. It seems he just opened Kumi at Mandalay Bay — like Yellowtail at Bellagio, a partnership with the Light Group — to great buzz, then participated in the inaugural Life Is Beautiful Festival in October, then off to India. “Why not?” he says. “(Masaharu) Morimoto has restaurants there. Le Cirque is already there, too, and Hakkasan. They love food there, they appreciate food. Every major chef is going to be there.”
It’s not surprising to see a seasoned chef moving from the Strip to a different location, even to an exotic dining destination or prestigious restaurant. This is different. Akira Back is expanding, and he’s moving fast. The New Delhi restaurant opened in December. Another will debut in Jakarta, the largest city in Indonesia, in March. Back’s namesake brand of sake is almost ready, too, produced in Japan for availability in all his restaurants. He’s not going to stop there.
Both new Akira Back restaurants are different partnerships, not affiliated with the Las Vegas-based Light Group, a long-dominant force in nightlife and dining on the Strip. (Light also operates venues in Miami and Dubai.) “When I joined with the (Light) company and became a partner, I told them I had a dream, that I wanted to do something for myself,” Back says. “I’m fortunate to be working with them and to have other opportunities, too. I just really want a challenge, and my next challenge has to be outside of Vegas.”
Back has already stepped beyond our city’s chef archetypes. There are the celebrities whose names are in lights but who only occasionally visit their successful Vegas kitchens, and there are those who worked their way into those kitchens, toiling for long hours and low pay, climbing a ladder that could lead to a big gig in any major city. Back is different. He arrived at Bellagio six years ago to help convert the resort’s original Japanese restaurant, Shintaro, into Yellowtail, a hot spot. He was already a significant force coming from Aspen, Colorado, where he cooked at the acclaimed Kenichi and became executive chef at Nobu in 2003.
Furthermore, this is Back’s second career; he became a professional snowboarder (See Akira Back snowboard) as a youth in Aspen when his family moved there from Korea. “I picked it up fast and got good, and that was right when the X Games were starting up,” he says. Success came fast but not without hard work and dedication. The experience helped shaped his dynamic ambition, and the early years in the kitchen at Kenichi hardened his work ethic. “When I started I was counting rice grains on the floor with chopsticks. They put me in the dish pit, they put me into everything. My mom was worried because my hands were cut all over. It was tough, but when I got through I started really enjoying cooking. And now look — my hands are beautiful,” he jokes.
Las Vegas has plenty of famous chefs, but there aren’t many who built an empire starting on the Strip. Back’s goals are reminiscent of another foreign-born chef whose big break was at Bellagio: Michael Mina. He’s a nationally renowned star today, 19 venues in eight states, but when he came to Las Vegas to open Aqua 15 years ago, he was an up-and-comer working at one spectacular restaurant.
“Everyone comes here when they’re already really popular, when they want to put their name out,” says Back. “I got lucky and was approached to come cook here when I was upcoming, an opportunity to make it big in my own way.”
Under Back’s culinary direction, Yellowtail remains one of the top Japanese restaurants on the Strip, so expanding with a slightly different concept at Mandalay Bay, another MGM Resorts property, was a natural move. Kumi was one of the biggest arrivals of 2013, a stunning makeover of the space that was China Grill, and a chance for Back to add more of his favorite flavors to the menu.
“I feel if you go to Mandalay Bay today, there are a few restaurants you absolutely have to try, and we’re one of them,” he says. There’s fun, like a spicy tuna and crab roll garnished with avocado and Pop Rocks; a Korean-influenced roll with deep-fried pork belly inside; Nobu-ish favorites like rock shrimp tempura and yellowtail sashimi with serrano peppers, plus satisfying entrees like earthy mixed mushrooms over beef tenderloin and a bone-in pork chop with apple-fennel slaw. Back’s food can be brash and irreverent but never impetuous; there’s purpose and calculation on every plate. Pop Rocks are in the sushi roll because you’ll order it, but he doesn’t allow playful ingredients to overwhelm. Experience his seven-course omakase (“chef’s choice”) menu at Yellowtail and you might get snapper sashimi lacquered in powerful gochujang Korean chili paste, a combo that will shock purists. At the end, if you’re lucky, there’s a cheese plate, unheard of in a Japanese restaurant. He uses it to show a different side of his philosophy, a little culinary storytelling. These wildly creative flourishes help set him apart, but always within his future-looking framework.
The cuisine at Akira Back New Delhi is very similar to Kumi’s, though the chef thoughtfully dedicated more time to vegetable dishes. There’s a faux scallop made from a meaty mushroom soaked in sake, braised and then pan-seared and served with edamame risotto. “I never understood vegetables as well as I do now,” he says.
Lots of things are becoming clear right now. That’s what happens when your focus is consistently intense. “I’m still not happy where I’m at,” Back says. “I came to Las Vegas with a big dream. I knew this would be a big step, but from the beginning the reason was because so many people come here. It’s the biggest melting pot in the country, every kind of people you can imagine. I knew Vegas would help me go to other places.”
In October, the legendary chef and Back’s former boss, Nobu Matsuhisa, came to Vegas, bringing chefs from his restaurants around the world for a celebratory dinner called Nobu United. Back would have loved to go, but he was working.
“Can you imagine that?” he asks. “What does he have, like 36 restaurants? All your chefs together making food, all from what you made? Wow. Let’s say we meet 10 years later and I have 10 restaurants. I’ll cry. I would lose it. That would be so cool.”
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Crispy rice. Many restaurants attempt some version of this new classic, a sushi-sized nugget of caramelized sushi rice topped with that compulsory chopped, spicy, raw tuna. Kumi upgrades and beautifies the bite with perfectly seared jewels of tuna, coated with peppery spice, and adds the creamy “Screaming O” sauce, which has a stunning kick of its own. Get used to these delicious twists; they are the calling card of Chef Back.
007 Octopussy Roll. Playful, sometimes suggestive names for sushi rolls are the only thing Kumi has in common with your neighborhood all-you-can-eatery. The main ingredient is where this one gets its name, but the story behind the roll comes from Back’s adolescence watching businessmen munch squid and octopus while drinking sweet soju. The spice in the tender octopus plays against the sweetness of the crab and a slight tang in the sauce, while crispy potatoes offer textural balance. — B.R.