Korean food has become exponentially more popular in the past few years, and as a result, more accessible than ever. From July 10-12, D.C.’s Summer Fancy Food Show is home to a record 25 Korean food companies, most notably, the Hansik Pop-Up restaurant.
The “unique experimental 10-seat full-service restaurant” will serve a three-course, “prix-free” meal prepared by celebrity chef Akira Back of Yellowtail Restaurant. The menu features inventive takes on traditional Korean favorites, such as a Kogi taco with smoked tomato salsa, bibim tuna with strawberry and mini corn, and ssam prepared with free range chicken, ginseng air and ssamjang. There’s also a creative cocktail menu, recipes courtesy of Kimchi Chronicles‘ Jean-Georges and Marja Vongerichten.
Akira Back, executive chef of Yellowtail at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, was recently profiled on Korean lifestyle channel O’live TV’s Great Chef, a series exploring the kitchens of four Korean chefs—among them Belgium’s Sang-hoon Degeimbre, Austria’s Kim Sohyi, and San Francisco’s Cory Lee. In the hour-long episode, Back (whom we raved about last year) gave viewers a tour of his signature dishes and explained his eclectic and musical food style.
Wearing his chef’s uniform (army cargo pants and bright blue sneakers – clearly reminding us of his blue-haired pro snowboarding past), Back clarified that he is more than just a Japanese cuisine chef: “I have my own style. [...] When I make something, I can say this: ingredient-driven, taste will be Korean American with Japanese ethics. So I combined all the techniques together and I made it my original taste.”
One of the dishes that showcases his originality is the Big-Eye Tuna Pizza.
Illustrating it as a melting pot of flavors, Back picked the fusion pizza dish as his most “Las Vegas-ish” dish because of the gambles (the flavor changes depending on the angle and area you eat it from) and illusions (the layers are semi see through, so you see something, but not really) the diner will experience while eating the dish.
Back is also big on music. He cites David Guetta’s “I Gotta Feeling” as having an enormous influence on his energy in the kitchen and his “food orchestrating.” At one point during the show, he described an octopus tentacle and a half-peeled tomato as “dancing” to the “music” on his dish.
By using crunchy cucumber and onions, crispy tortillas, and crackling popping candy, Back said he tries to emulate the pumping bass sounds in Guetta’s song onto his dishes. He continued on to say that he does not want his diner to merely taste the food from her/his mouth, he wants them to “eat again” with their ears, too: “Every human is going to taste no matter what because everyone has a tongue. So they’ll start eating it, but if there’s no sound, you’re just eating it. So I put the crunch, so you can hear the stuff, and so you’re eating again in your ears.”
Speaking of Korean food, he chose gochujang as the ingredient that best represents Korea and picked his Braised Kobe Beef Short Ribs—a dish inspired by his mother’s galbijjim recipe—as one his more Korean dishes. When asked whose galbijjim is better (his or his mother’s), he, without any hesitation, said his mom’s.
Watch the full episode of Great Chef featuring Akira Back (note: it’s in Korean):
Not many people can say they used to snowboard professionally or be identified as a “rising star ” chef in the United States. Akira Back, born in Korea, moved to Colorado at a young age and became a professional snowboarder. He was featured in some of the top snowboarding magazines such as Transworld and Snowboarder and also earned prominent endorsements with companies such as Etines.
As a professional snowboarder, Akira also spent time cooking in local Aspen restaurants, where he realized his passion for food was equal if not greater than snowboarding. After a strong 7 year career in snowboarding, Akira decided to attend culinary school and began working for some of the best Japanese restaurants in the world, include Chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Masaharu Morimoto.
Akira has been widely recognized for his food by the culinary world including being named one of the “Rising Stars” by Restaurant Hospitality magazine. As the Executive Chef for Nobu Matsuhisa’s namesake restaurant in Aspen, he became even more popular for his unique style and precision. He has prepared meals for many celebrities and important figures such as Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Paris Hilton and former President Bill Clinton. Currently, he is the Executive Chef of Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, where Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift has called the meal that Chef Akira Back prepared “the best of her life”. Akira has also been featured on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, taking on Bobby Flay in a spinach battle. (see battle video below)
Less than a month ago, we had the pleasure of trying out Chef Akira’s current restaurant to taste and talk about his food.
The food was a pleasant surprise especially for a Korean American. Although the restaurant is technically called a Japanese restaurant and you can order sushi, what makes this restaurant good is the Chef’s ability to use his creativity and integrate Korean flavors into fresh and clean tasting food. I would not call his food Korean Japanese fusion, but rather American Cuisine, using Japanese and French techniques using Korean flavors.
For example, one of my favorite dishes was his Toro Sashimi wrapped around some micro mixed greens and “gochujang” (korean red pepper sauce) topped off with some caviar. (see picture below)
I’d also recommend the Big Eyed Tuna Pizza, his signature dish that will blow your mind. It’s basically tuna on a fried tortilla with some minced onions with some truffle oil and greens on top. (see video below)
So the next time you are in Las Vegas, I would highly recommend trying at least a couple of Chef Akira’s dishes and ask for something with gochujang in it, because you won’t be disappointed.