Dubai: A perfect bowl of rice needs the same skill and dedication as martial arts. That’s the lesson Korean-American chef Akira Back learnt from his Japanese master chef at a restaurant he first trained with.
“I cut vegetables and made rice for seven years.” The Japanese concept of Kaizen is essentially about continual improvement - a pursuit for perfection, be it in sushi, origami or martial arts. And that is what Chef Back learnt in his time at this Japanese restaurant in Colorado, USA. A philosophy that also helped him achieve his Michelin stars.
“When I cook food, I want it to represent me. Born in Korea and raised in Colorado, America, I learned Japanese cuisine and consider myself much ‘Americanised’. So when I cook, I do not overthink. Basically, how I feel, how I think, is how the food turns out to be... I live in America, so my taste buds are like that.” To him, ‘Americanised’ represents freedom and a melting pot of cultures.
As per online reports, 47-year-old Chef Akira Back was born as Sung Ook Back in Seoul, Korea. He was called "Akira" by a family friend from Japan, as "Ook" translates to "Akira" in Kanji or characters used in a Japanese script.
Korean cooking and The Squid Games
Speaking to Gulf News Food at the recent launch of a new menu in his namesake restaurant Akira Back at the W Palm, Dubai, Chef Back said: “Korean cuisine is getting really popular, one of the reasons is the popularity of the web series – The Squid Games and before that it was K-pop and the surge of Korean drama, in which you see a lot of eating and drinking. It is a cultural thing. Be it a sad or happy occasion, there will be some kind of eating and drinking.”
Talking about the cuisine itself, Chef Back explained that Korean cuisine uses a lot of heat in food. The heat here is not the same as a spice; instead, it means the element of fire. “Your stove or wok must have a fire. Because that is what makes a flavour. But again it is about the drama, the singing, the culture has become so popular that it is impressive,” he said.
The other critical elements to Korean cooking are garlic and spiciness from Gochujang chillies. All adding to the heat factor.
Elaborating on how Korean food has adapted to the international palate over time, Chef Back said: “Long time ago, people did not like garlic, but looking at the global trend now, people have started using more of garlic and less salt. Combine it with heat; for instance, a pleasant flavour is released when you sauté. Then you have the famous Korean spice – Gochujang (dried red chilli paste) that blends well with rice. It is the burst of sweetness and spice that has made Gochujang chillies really popular.”
But some of the Korean tastes he has had to evolve. To illustrate this transition, he narrated a childhood memory. "I was not fond of raw fish because of the texture and smell, but... there are two ways my mum made me eat raw fish. She would either give me money or candy. I obviously cannot offer money to my customers.
“For a lot of fish, we use our own sauces. I age fish to take away the raw ocean-like smell. Ageing does not mean keeping it for days. Instead, we use seaweed (how natural MSG is derived) for an extra umami flavour.”
From skateboarding into a toque
Chef back talks about how lucky he has been. “I was good at baseball, but then I had to move to America [his family moved to Aspen, Colorado, because of his father’s business prospects], where I had to speak English and did not know how to. So if I were to make friends, I had to learn English, and the only way I could learn was by participating in snowboarding or skateboarding. And that’s what I did. Bleached my hair, wore baggy pants, became cool and made friends."
He eventually found his way onto the professional snow-boarding circuit.
Along with that he decided to work in a Japanese restaurant that he frequented as a means to supplement his income, because he liked the main chef and the ambience. Eventually, he moved into the culinary world full time. He trained at the International Culinary School at The Art Institute based in Colorado and later under several top chefs in the US and Europe. Chef Back went on to open several restaurants worldwide, which eventually gave him his Michelin stars for innovative cuisine.
Today, although a world renowned chef, known for his technique and unique dishes, he is glad he learnt how to cook the traditional way and under the guidance of a master. But back then, when he would be told to “Respect the rice”, he did not understand the phrase. And every day, he would get told off for cooking rice inaccurately. “But now I realise what the chef did for me. You have no idea what it takes to make a perfect bowl of rice. You have to rinse rice, but gently. It is like perfecting a martial art kick. You don’t punch the rice. You really rinse it slowly with your palm. You have to figure out the temperature of the water. It requires a lot of patience.”
From making sushi rice to adding soy sauce and cutting sushi the right way, each step needs immense patience. The process teaches a lot. In hindsight, “I get his point, maybe the chef at the restaurant did not even mean that, but I see where he is coming from. Maybe that’s an old way to make you reflect.” Sounds like Kaizen.
In a similar way, his ambitions in Dubai have been realised in a seamless manner
Chef Back explained that as he travelled the world, he was always fond of the city. Drawing similarity between how both America and Dubai are a melting pot of cultures, he said: “Dubai is somehow a part of me. I had been dreaming for a long time to open my restaurant in Dubai, then it happened. It is a hub where people from different parts of the world live in. It is an international market.”
For now he is happy with where he is at – serving international diners a blend of Korean-American dishes created with the attention to detail and delicacy of a Michelin-starred chef – in pursuit of perfection.
Here are four recipes by Chef Back - Zucchini carpaccio, rainbow roll, clay pot truffle rice, Korean kabocha pound cake.