Baby got Akira Back!

The king of $5,300 sake and sushi pizza who took on Bobby Flay opens at Bisha

Bayview Post - - Food - by Ben Ka­plan

Ketchup chips aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the first thing you’d ex­pect to find at an up­scale Ja­panese restau­rant. But Akira Back — a hip­ster celebrity chef who made his bones in Las Ve­gas — has crafted a name for him­self by do­ing the un­ex­pected. And come Oc­to­ber, chef Back, along with T.O.’s pow­er­house restau­ra­teurs Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji, will be open­ing Akira Back in the 44storey Bisha Ho­tel Toronto, found at 80 Blue Jays Way. Et voila! Ketchup chips shall of­fi­cially join the world of up­scale cui­sine.

“I’m cur­rently work­ing on dishes fea­tur­ing essences from this city,” the 43-year-old Korean su­per chef says. “One of them be­ing in­cor­po­rat­ing the idea of ketchup chips into a dish and cre­at­ing some­thing unique.”

“There will be some of my sig­na­ture dishes from Akira Back brand restau­rants around the world fea­tured at Bisha,” Back says. The chef ’s epony­mous En­ter­tain­ment Dis­trict eatery will seat 110 pa­trons and span 3,000 square feet in a space de­signed by Alessan­dro Munge of Stu­dio Munge. Din­ers can ex­pect Akira Back tacos, crispy pork belly and his fa­mous jeju domi, which Las Ve­gas Weekly called “one of the best raw fish bites” in town. “I’d like to use freshly picked or­ganic mi­cro­greens and also source as many in­gre­di­ents as we can lo­cally,” Back says.

Back’s path to the top was some­what cir­cuitous. The chef grew up in Seoul and was in­flu­enced by the cook­ing of his mother, who would make great Korean dishes for his fam­ily and friends. But it wasn’t the culi­nary world that first drew him in; the ath­let­i­cally in­clined Back got his start in base­ball be­fore mak­ing a name for him­self as a pro­fes­sional snow­boarder.

Fol­low­ing a good chunk of time on the cir­cuit, Back switched lanes and went to culi­nary school in Colorado. The am­bi­tious young chef-in-train­ing worked his way up through the ranks to be­come the youngest ex­ec­u­tive chef for cook­ing god Nobu Mat­suhisa, of Nobu restau­rant fame, be­fore set­ting out on his own.

Back has also had plenty of screen time, hav­ing cooked against Bobby Flay on Iron Chef and pre­pared his trade­mark big eye tuna pizza on Good Morn­ing Amer­ica.

In short, Back’s Korean in­flu­enced Ja­panese cook­ing — crispy pork belly rolls, Korean short ribs and his take on sushi — is poised to take Toronto by storm. Fit­tingly, given Back’s back­ers, it’s not only chef ’s food that’s sure to wow din­ers, but also his flair. At his Yel­low­tail restau­rant at the Bel­la­gio Ho­tel in Las Ve­gas, for ex­am­ple, Back ca­su­ally sells a US$5,300 sake to pa­trons. It’s no won­der the likes of Tay­lor Swift and Pink have been wooed by his culi­nary of­fer­ings.

This wow fac­tor is some­thing that Khabouth and Harji, the mus­cle be­hind Pa­tria, Es­tia and By­b­los, are also well versed in.

“Our goal is to cre­ate a young and hip at­mos­phere with great vi­brant en­ergy and pro­vide a unique ex­pe­ri­ence,” Back says. “I’m ex­cited to jump into the melt­ing pot of cul­tural diver­sity in this city and es­tab­lish my own iden­tity.”

As far as iden­ti­ties go, it’s hard to im­prove upon Back’s. The world-renowned chef has restau­rants in New Delhi and Jakarta, but it was his work in Las Ve­gas that caught the eyes of Khabouth and Harji. The Toronto duo dined on the en­tire menu at Back’s Yel­low­tail Ja­panese restau­rant be­fore mak­ing the hot chef an of­fer.

“We felt like the vol­ume he does and the qual­ity he main­tains is in­cred­i­ble and, af­ter meet­ing him, we un­der­stood quickly that he speaks our lan­guage,” says Harji, adding that he ex­pects the chef to cook at Bisha’s Oc­to­ber open­ing and oth­er­wise to be here six or seven times a year.

“For a ma­jor met­ro­pol­i­tan city, Ja­panese food is un­der­rep­re­sented in Toronto,” Harji says. “Bring­ing Akira to the city is ex­cit­ing be­cause there’s a ma­jor gap in the mar­ket we can fill.”

Of course, Back doesn’t like to talk about the mar­ket­place or any­thing to do with the busi­ness of run­ning a restau­rant. In­stead, chef likes to talk about flavour and, in Toronto, he looks for­ward to push­ing his oys­ters and kobe beef like he’s done all over the world. Back says he’s ex­cited to jump into his new kitchen, hire his staff — which will in­clude some of his team from Ve­gas — and turn out Ja­panese fu­sion dishes the city has never seen.

“Akira Back Toronto will of­fer mod­ern Ja­panese cui­sine with a Korean ac­cent,” Back says. His food will also be in­flu­enced by his ex­pe­ri­ences and ad­ven­tures while trav­el­ling.

When asked how he be­lieved ketchup chips could work in an up­scale din­ing en­vi­ron­ment, Harji de­murred, say­ing sim­ply that he trusted chef Back and that he was pleased to be work­ing with one of the most cre­ative and coolest chefs in the world. In Oc­to­ber, Toron­to­ni­ans will count them­selves among the lucky ones who get to sam­ple Back’s unique Asian blends.

“I know he has great restau­rants all over the globe, but we think his work in Toronto is go­ing to be truly spe­cial,” says Harji. “Toronto’s such a melt­ing pot that he’s go­ing to take real ad­van­tage of our great flex­i­bil­ity of flavour.”

You heard it here first folks: that flavour is sure to in­clude ketchup chips.

Chef Akira Back is a real kooky char­ac­ter

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