Akira Back has not only risen to the top of one profession, but two

Korean Akira Back was 13 years old when his father uprooted their family from Seoul and took a job in Aspen, USA. Moving to the celebrity paradise of Aspen could have been idyllic, but young Akira didn’t speak a word of English. “When I first moved to Aspen I was scared. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t planning to move to USA so I didn’t study English,” says Back. “There were no Asians. It was just a picture of white snow and white people with blue eyes. So it was pretty scary.”

But while he couldn’t order McDonald’s with the other kids (his mother used to point out his order on his behalf), it wasn’t long before he found his tribe. “I wanted to make friends and all the cool kids did snowboarding and skateboarding, so I started learning to snowboard so that I could hang out with them,” says Back.

Already a proficient skier after spending time on the pistes in Korea, it wasn’t long before Back found his feet as a boarder. While he may have had a crippling lack of confidence when it came to ordering a burger, nothing could hold him back when he was on snow.

It wasn’t long before the Korean teenager was making new friends and attracting sponsorship. He then travelled the world, climbed the extreme sports ladder, competed in competitions and starred in snowboarding videos. But his new found fame became a double-edged sword. While it gave him the friends and lifestyle he sought, the snowboarding world was becoming more commercial and Back wasn’t finding his hobby as much fun.

Though after each training session, Back and his snowboarding buddies would hang out in a Japanese restaurant. He saw the chef and owner chatting to his clients over the bar and serving food that made people feel satiated and happy.

Back was smitten with the lifestyle. He left his snowboarding career behind and asked the chef if he could join his team. “My parents were really supportive of my snowboarding career – even when I’d come home with baggy pants and green hair,” says Back. “But when I told them that I was giving it up to be a chef they were upset.”

Back’s parents probably had a right to be concerned. Up till this point, Back had never set foot in a kitchen. He also didn’t eat raw fish and had taken a job as a sushi prep cook in a Japanese restaurant. The atmosphere in the restaurant was also more high-pressured than the snowboarding competitions.

Back had a desire to succeed. He wanted to prove to his parents that he made the right decision. While he quickly gained notoriety as a hot new chef, Back hadn’t forgotten the promise that he had made to his parents about graduating from college. Whilst he was preparing to open a new restaurant to much fanfare in Detroit, Back would spend the downtime studying at catering college. “People were like, what are you doing here? You’re already working and about to open a restaurant,” says Back. “But I promised my parents that I would graduate.”

Back then launched restaurants in Texas and Hawaii before opening his own restaurant Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. It became a hot favourite with celebrities and it wasn’t long before the likes of Taylor Swift, Eva Longoria and Pink were found taking a seat on one of the famed brown leather sofas.

At the same time Back was balancing a burgeoning TV career after a producer of Iron Chef America invited his to compete against Bobby Flay on the show. Back lost out to the barbecue king in a spinach battle, but he went onto star on The Today Show, the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate and The Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America.

However, Back had set his sights on another challenge altogether. After launching his own restaurants in the Middle East and Asia, he decided to take his food to his home city of Seoul in South Korea. And in typical Back style, he aimed high: “I told everybody I’m going to go to Korea and get a Michelin star. It was my dream,” says Back.

Back chose a site in the upscale area of Gangnam-gu where he grew up. “I wanted that area so much, I didn’t think about the rent,” says Back. “If I did it again I would do it very differently.” While Back’s Japanese dishes with a Korean twist were being met with open arms by foodies in Seoul, Back jokes that he panicked he’d never get a Michelin star. “Two years in and no sign of a Michelin, my eyes started twitching,” he says.

Then he received an email from Michelin inviting him to an awards dinner. However, as his friends had also been invited he didn’t think he’d won. He had to buy a tux as he didn’t own one, as he spends all of his life in chef’s whites, but the purchase was worth it as he won his first star. “It was awesome. I told everyone my dream would come true,” he says with a huge grin across his face. “If I lose it who cares. I will still have a Michelin-star restaurant on my resume for my life.”

The hands on chef shows no signs of slowing down. He now has 14 restaurants scattered throughout North America, the Middle East and Asia and he is about to open six more, including Beverly Hills and Dubai.

He says that his recipe for success is simple: “The menu nobody can touch,” he says. “People aren’t coming to a franchise, they are coming to my restaurant. I don’t want them going to Dubai and say it doesn’t taste the same as Singapore.” So while he encourages his chefs to experiment, this hands-on chef requests that any additions have to be run by him first. This goes for each of his 14, or soon to be 20 restaurants.

But there is one young chef who can wrap Back around her little finger and that’s his seven-year-old daughter Chloe. “She says let’s bake something, but she doesn’t like cleaning. I have to clear up,” he laughs. Though somehow, we think that acting as the sous chef to his daughter, is more of a delight for him that winning that Michelin star.

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