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Delhi Wine Club
Chef Akira is Back at Delhi JW Marriott

Posted: Monday, 07 April 2014 11:15

Chef Akira is Back at Delhi JW Marriott

Apr 07: Chef Akira Back, the man behind Akira Back Japanese Restaurant with the Korean Accent and American twist at the newly opened JW Marriott, which has won the hearts of many gourmets of Delhi in a short time since opening, was here when Subhash Arora met the celebrity chef from Las Vegas and tasted a few of his dishes as he discussed his style of cooking

Click For Large ViewThe first thing that strikes you about Chef Akira, partner in his namesake restaurant at JW Marriott at Aerocity, New Delhi, is that he is very soft-spoken and humble - and he is not even Japanese! This could be perhaps due to the Korean born Chef having being in contact with several well-known Japanese master chefs like Kenichi Kanada and Nobu Matsuhisa in the USA.

A South Korean who grew up in Seoul, he moved when he was 16 with his parents to Aspen in Colorado where his father’s business partner resided. His father’s dream, that of a typical Asian father, to make him a doctor or a lawyer did not materialize as Akira was not interested in studies but baseball. But his interest in sports came in handy as he learnt snowboarding, the growing sport at that time in the ski capital of the USA, according to Akira. In no time, he became a professional snowboarder.

Unfortunately, he had an accident on the slopes and had to quit the sport as a professional. To please his parents he started working for sushi master Kenichi Kanada in Aspen at his restaurant Kenichi. ‘I mopped floors, cooked rice, did everything under the sun but didn’t really like cooking. But after 3 years I had fallen in love with cooking. I even opened two restaurants for him-one in Austin and another one in Hawaii.’

Click For Large ViewChef Akira was away for many years from Aspen, travelling and cooking until one day when he received a call from Chef Nobu. ‘Two chefs I had recommended and introduced to him for his restaurant in Aspen also got hurt in the snowboarding accident and he needed me to help him fill the spot. I told Kenichi with whom I had worked for 7 years by then that I would need to move back to Aspen where I worked for Nobu as his executive chef.’

His career as a Chef took off when he got a call one day six years ago from the Bellagio in Las Vegas. They wanted him to open a Japanese restaurant. Thus was born Yellowtail by Akira Back, with him as the partner of Light, the company that established the restaurant. Six months ago, Light opened another restaurant, Kumi by Akira Back at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Akira Back at Akira Back Delhi

Akira had an opportunity to open a restaurant with his name in Delhi when he was told by a mutual friend in the US that the swanky JW Marriott was coming up and they were looking for a Chef to open a Japanese restaurant. ‘I flew to Delhi and when I tasted the food here, I knew I had to open my restaurant here. I found the palate very friendly here. The owners (Sushil Gupta’s family) were in the US later and tried my food in Las Vegas. They were keen to have me start the restaurant and here we are!

Click For Large ViewA Korean living in America learning Japanese cuisine - Chef Back has created his own style - infusing an essence of Korea in the food with an American twist. ‘I put everything around me into my cooking. Every day is different for me. I pick up ideas from gambling in the casino, the music, the food I eat! Sometimes I get up at night when I get a new idea. I use my experience with baseball and snowboarding and merge all those experiences into my cooking. But the biggest inspiration for me is the freedom. It was Chef Nobu who inspired me to follow my own style.’  

So how does he compare his style to Nobu’s? ‘His style is very different. Inspired by his travels to Peru and Argentina, he now calls his food Caribbean styled Japanese food. My food is bolder and stronger including flavours from Korea. I won’t call it fusion or modern - just my style which has a Korean accent.’

When I asked him how he would place it in comparison to Wasabi at the Taj or Megu at the Leela Palace Delhi, he says, ‘they are all good but not my style. I have eaten everywhere including the Yauatcha Chinese Restaurant by Hakkasan. I eat at all those places when I am here.’

Click For Large ViewHe does stress though that the quality of the food served in Delhi is the same as in Las Vegas. ‘Of course, there may be a slight difference due to the ingredients; we try to use as many fresh ingredients as possible, sourced locally. We even grow our own micro greens here. It is interesting that the baby cilantro whose seeds we brought from the USA tasted different here due to the soil. We are experimenting and I am learning a lot about vegetables.’ Are they growing their own Edamame here? ‘Not yet, we will certainly give it a try. There is nothing like ‘No’ for me but we need time.’

How do the Japanese like his cuisine in India? ‘Well, we receive a sizeable chunk of Japanese as our clients every evening. They usually pick out the traditional dishes but many are more experimental and want to try new things. It’s the same with everyone. If you go abroad, you like to try Indian food that is familiar and more traditional. But we have heard no complaints so far and they seem to be happy,’ he says modestly.

Has he opened a restaurant in Korea? ’Not yet’ comes an instant answer but ‘I go to Korea 2-3 times a year and hope to open one there soon.’ He has his hands full right now. He is opening an Akira Back in Jakarta next month and yet another stand alone restaurant in Beverley Hills in July. In Los Angeles one has to be careful since the restaurants like his don’t work well in the hotel, he adds.

Click For Large ViewDoes he recommend wine with his food? ‘Wine, Sake or any alcohols you like go fine with my food. You may like to have a glass of white wine with the pizzas or tacos. Pizza or taco, you say!! This is part of his repertoire and the innovations he makes because he likes them. They are similar only in name and perhaps the shape to the familiar dishes but are totally different in terms of texture, flavours, spices and the whole experience- certainly very light and appetizing- I had two plates of vegetarian tacos and one plate of pizza before I could say cheers with the glass of Rossj and Bass Chardonnay Gaia 2011 - a heavenly pairing with the two vegetarian dishes.

The spices in his dishes are what make his cuisine unique. When I asked him how the Indian clients like his food, he says,’I hear from my people here that they generally go very satisfied and happy. One thing that works in our favour is our spices - people who love spices find our food delectable. Also our clients are slightly westernized. We may not be whites but our food habits have become very international. This is like a melting pot and they like my style of food.’

What does he think of the prices in the restaurant and are they planning any special packages for people who don’t understand the menu. ‘Our prices are not very expensive but are not cheap either – they are in the middle (dinner can cost around Rs.4000-5000 a couple without drinks). We are thinking of experimenting with a Sunday brunch soon; the restaurant is usually not open for lunch. I believe they are quite popular here,’ he says. So they plan to have buffets? ’No, it will still be a la Carte. The difference would be that I will select the dishes for the brunch. We are working on it- I still have to taste a couple of dishes.’ One may get the opportunity very soon.

Like a good manager, Akira is a good team player. His lieutenants, Chef Curt and Jordan who are Chefs de Cuisine at JW Marriott, have been well-trained under him in Las Vegas and do a wonderful job of re-creating his dishes and style. He has no option. He needs his Chefs to be trained properly and take care of the kitchens independently across the international borders.

Click For Large ViewThe menu at Akira Back has several choices. It is slightly restricted for vegetarians but they are working on it. But for a rare treat and the complete experience of his style, ask for their signature Menu Omakase. The word literally means ‘I am in your hands’ and implies a Tasters' Menu. You let the restaurant serve you a wide spectrum of dishes. Although it is not listed as such on the menu but Rajat Kalia, the Restaurant Manager confirms that Omakase is available at around Rs. 4000-6000 per person depending upon whether it is vegetarian and what type of non vegetarian dishes are ordered.

One thing is sure - you will be treated to the food by the celebrity chef. He has been invited to cook at the famous James Beard House in New York four times. He was recently selected as the Best Chef of Las Vegas by the Las Vegas Weekly. He is a TV Show Host and appears on several shows as a judge.

If you are in a mood to celebrate or if you are a true gourmet in a mood to splurge, the only two Japanese words you need to know-Omakase on arrival and Arigato before leaving. You would be welcome even if you thanked in English!

Subhash Arora

                                                                                Omakase menu

Tags: Akira Back, Yellowtail, Kumi by Akira Back


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