FACT caught up with the snowboarder turned chef during his recent visit to Dubai, where we discussed culinary inspirations and Dubai’s restaurant scene post-pandemic.
What is your favourite dish on the Akira Back menu and why?
When you come here, you have to eat the tuna pizza. I always tell the customers that if you don’t like it, don’t tell me, because the dish is my mothers favourite. When you eat it, you’ll notice a painting underneath. That’s my mum’s painting, which makes the dish very meaningful for me.
The other one is the 48-hour short rib. In Korea, when we grew up, beef was very expensive. So my mum used to get the cheap beef and braise it for a long time with the root vegetables. That memory is the inspiration for the dish, though I use better quality beef and better quality tools.
When you constructed the menu here, did you have to make amendments for the Middle Eastern market?
The menu here is very similar to the other Akira Back locations. Dubai is a very international melting pot, so I didn’t really worry too much when we opened.
Our food worked in Las Vegas at a time when a lot of restaurants closed, and we’ve now been open for eleven years. Of course, we had to adapt a little bit and I would say the menu here is less spicy. In the US, it’s spicier. We also use less garlic here in Dubai.
What attracted you to open a restaurant in Dubai and why W Dubai – The Palm?
I have always loved Dubai. It’s one of those places that a chef dreams to have in the portfolio. If you have a restaurant in Dubai, then you’ve made it, because the competition here is insane!
When I came here, I saw the waterfront view and that was it. The Palm was seen to be a challenging location, and many people told me not to open here. I told them that I wanted to make my restaurant a destination and to challenge myself. At that time, we didn’t know the hotel would be a W, and it’s perfect because the brand is young and crazy. It worked out well.
What do you think it is about Akira Back’s cuisine that has resonated with diners in Dubai?
I believe that we have better options. If you want to eat beef only, come here because we have the best. If you’re going to eat sushi, or if you’re vegan, then we can cater to that. These days it’s all about options and we have them. Plus, it’s a nice environment. It looks cool, the music is cool, and the service is one of the most important things. Every year we are getting stronger and I feel good every time I come here. Diners can expect to see me two or three times a year.
You are in town for the launch of Social Saturday at Akira Back, what can you tell us about this new promotion?
I noticed that a lot of customers don’t want to ask what they should be ordering. So we’re giving them the greatest hits and it’s going to be stunning. I don’t think anybody else has done this.
I mentioned the concept to Chef Geo a long time ago and now we expect that all Akira Back’s will copy this. After that, we have more exciting stuff to come. We don’t want to run too fast. We’re going to wait for the perfect timing.
How does Akira Back Dubai differ from your other global concepts?
Dubai is just like Vegas. It’s very International. It’s surprising how many of my customers have dined here in Dubai. We’re opening in Paris and then London and I cannot wait! When we opened in Dubai, we had nothing in Europe. We are now getting busier and busier and Dubai has been the introduction to the brand for the European market.
Is it difficult getting all of the required ingredients here in Dubai?
It was a little bit difficult when we started, but now there is no problem whatsoever. We can get whatever we want.
Coming out of a global pandemic, what do you believe restaurants need to do to stay relevant and ensure success during these uncertain times for the industry?
We got killed! I was actually very depressed for a while. But after the hard times, the good things started happening. I would not be opening in Europe if it were not for COVID.
We learned a lot from what was happening in Asia, so we adapted the model and we were ready with takeout for the US market. Outside of Bangkok and Hanoi, things have been good. In Korea, we did well and our sales went up 30% at the Four Seasons due to our takeout offering. Bangkok has been challenging and it’s really hard for the employees. Luckily we have managed to keep most of them on.
People are now eating out more and spending more money. As a result, the average check is up and worldwide, we are selling more Wagyu beef and toro than ever before.
How do you feel about creating dishes purely for Instagram?
I love the visuals and I think, especially after COVID, people want to be entertained. The food needs to look good but also taste good. My food always has a sound because I use the crunch. It’s important to me and I call it ‘music’.
We do everything here by the gram to ensure consistency. Even little things like humidity can change a dish. We check absolutely everything and it has become more like a science.
Do you have a favourite cuisine you like to cook at home?
I don’t often cook at home. I think most chefs will tell you they have a frozen pizza ready to go. The only time I enjoy cooking at home is a BBQ. I get stressed when I cook at home, so the only time you’ll find me cooking is my parents anniversary and my mums birthday.
What is the greatest honour that has been bestowed upon you?
When I travel, I see repeat customers and that is the best feeling ever. Over time you become friends with them and these are the people who will tell you if your food is good or not.