You may not have heard of Seung-Woo Baek. But if you’re an American or a foodie, you are likely to know him by the name Akira Back. The Michelin-starred chef has been a regular fixture on television in the United States, and is behind two of Las Vegas’s leading Japanese restaurants: Kumi in Mandalay Bay and Yellowtail in the Bellagio. He has also opened eateries in New Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok and Seoul, and the next venue to have his name over the door will be in Dubai, in the soon-to-open W Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah.
“There are a lot of similarities between here and Vegas,” he tells me during one of his visits to check on progress before the hotel’s scheduled opening in September. “The vibe, the landscape, the buildings and the fact that both cities are huge cultural melting pots and tourist magnets.”
Culinary exploration is what gets this man excited, and he’s looking forward to catering for a new region.
A different aspiration
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Back didn’t have any interest in fine cuisine as a youngster and his career path has been nothing if not unpredictable. “When I lived in [South] Korea,” he says, “all I wanted to be was a baseball player and I’d planned to go and live in Japan. But my father decided it was better for his kids to live in America, for our education, so we moved there when I was 14. I couldn’t speak any English – if the phone was ringing in the house I was too terrified to answer it. And we had moved to Aspen in Colorado, where everywhere and everyone was white.”
He’s referring to the fact that for much of the year, Aspen is covered in snow and is one of America’s most popular winter sports destinations. His father was partner in a company called Bollé, which manufactures sunglasses and goggles, so the decision to move to Aspen makes sense. But Back says he was desperate to fit in, which meant learning to speak English as quickly as possible. “All these kids around me with cool Mohawk hairstyles, so many pretty blondes, they were all into skateboarding and snowboarding, so the way to get in with these guys was obvious. I wanted to be cool, wanted to learn English, and this was the way I chose to do it, by taking up snowboarding.”
His talents for the sport were such that he competed professionally for seven years, realising along the way that he needed to supplement his income. Not wanting to be a drain on his parents’ coffers, he began working at Kenichi, a Japanese restaurant in Aspen. “Chef Kenichi [Kanada] was such a cool guy,” he says, “and when I saw the way he interacted with his customers and had fun, it made me want to be like him. So, in a way, I started working with food for the same reason I got into snowboarding: I wanted to be cool. I asked him to teach me and he agreed, on the condition that I shaved my head, because I think my hair was blue at the time.
Falling in love with cooking
“Up until [starting that job] I’d never held a knife, never washed dishes or even my clothes – I was so spoiled by my mum. That was the beginning of me experiencing real life and I hated it.”
By then his English had come on in leaps and bounds but, he admits, a lot of it was snowboarder speak. “If someone spoke to me in business terms, I’d say ‘yeah, bro, whatever’, but I’d have no idea what had just been said. Everything was ‘rad bro, yeah let’s do it’, but in the kitchen, that’s where it all changed – it had to, it’s vital to be able to communicate properly in there.”