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 44-storey 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 under-represented 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.