He’s a former snowboarder turned celebrity chef who wants to use a uniquely Canadian snack as part of his menu at a posh new downtown Toronto hotel. Akira Back is not your typical chef, and his restaurant at the coming Bisha Hotel Toronto promises to be just as fun and quirky.
In a telephone chat on a recent day when he was getting ready to fly to Korea, Back told me he’d like to use ketchup-flavoured potato chips in one of the dishes at the Bisha, which is set to open sometime in October and will be home to his first Canadian venture, aptly named Akira Back.
“I quite like them, and they’re unique to Canada,” Back said of ketchup chips. I’m personally not a fan, but I love all-dressed chips and I applaud Back for thinking outside the box. Or, in this case, bag.
"I can carve out my own style in the kitchen, so I think my sports background relates well to my cooking."
It’s no surprise that Back is willing to do something different. After all, this is a man who has seemingly perfected a now famous “tuna pizza” dish that comes on a Mexican tortilla, features his secret umami aioli and is sprinkled with European truffle oil.
Back was born in Korea but raised in Aspen, Colorado. He now operates restaurants in Las Vegas and several Asian cities, including Jakarta and Delhi, so it’s no surprise his food brings in flavours from Japan, Korea and other places.
His risk-taking also could be traced to his days as a snowboarder on the hills of Colorado.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I grew up playing baseball. But one day I saw these people with bleached hair and mohawks and nose rings and I wanted to know who they were. I followed them around and started skateboarding and snowboarding.”
He performed at the X Games and other top events before falling in love with cooking. But he says some of the discipline he found in sport is useful in the kitchen.
“You need leadership in the kitchen, and it’s very demanding physically. So I think my background really helps. At the same time, you have a lot of freedom as a snowboarder. I can carve out my own style in the kitchen, so I think my sports background relates well to my cooking. You certainly have to have focus to do either one.”
Asked to describe his food, Back said it’s kind of an American melting pot.
“Things really blend together, and then I put my twist on it,” he said. Back said his famous tuna pizza, which is pretty much on all his restaurant menus and which will be available in Toronto, started with a rice crust before he moved to a tortilla base. That mix of cultural influences is perfect for Canada’s biggest city, he said.
“The environments are different between Canada and the U.S., but I think Toronto is definitely a microcosm of cultures. I think palates in Canada are similar to the U.S., but I think Canadians might be a bit more open to new things.”
Back said he’s visited 30-35 Toronto restaurants but can’t remember their names.
“We did a lot of research, and I found fantastic food in the city. So it’s very positive.”
Asked what he might be working on to surprise Canadians, Back said he’s working on the ketchup potato chip idea.
“Nobody else has that, and it’s so Canadian,” he said.
Back once worked with famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. As luck would have it, Matsuhisa is talking about opening a restaurant of his own on Mercer St. in Toronto’s entertainment district, just a few steps from Bisha Hotel Toronto, which is on Blue Jays Way and set to open in late August or early September, just in time for the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Nobu is the godfather. He’s the best. So for me it’s an honour.”
Asked why he’s partnering with Toronto entertainment and nightclub mogul Charles Khabouth at the Bisha, Back said he met Khabouth a while back and was very impressed.
“I have a lot of respect for what he’s done in Toronto. He’s done amazing things and this is his first hotel, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
It also makes sense from a cultural mixing point of view. Back was born in Korea and raised in Aspen, while Khabouth is Lebanese and working in Toronto.
Based on a recent tour I did of the Bish’a rooms (one floor is being designed by rock star Lenny Kravitz) it looks quite Las Vegas-like, with big, bold splashy colours and a glamorous design that will make the hotel stand out from the more restrained style most Toronto hotels offer.
“That’s another reason I like this project,” Back told me. “It’s going to be very different. It’s going to be a little crazy, with a lot of colour. Yes, maybe a bit like Vegas.”
As with his other restaurants, the art work inside his Toronto restaurant will be things his mother painted.
“For me it’s important to have her work around me,” Back said. “I feel like she’s protecting me.”
Written by Jim Byers for Toronto Sun