Chef Akira Back moved to Las Vegas from Aspen, Colorado, where he worked with acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa and at the highly regarded sushi spot Kenichi. Getting used to Vegas life was tough at first—“There’s no snow here, nothing,” he jokes—but he quickly settled in as chef at Bellagio’s Yellowtail. He recently expanded his partnership with the Light Group by opening Kumi at Mandalay Bay, a second modern Japanese restaurant with a bit of Korean-American edge.
You’ll have a booth at this weekend’s Life Is Beautiful Festival serving food from Yellowtail and Kumi. What are you serving?
It’s going to be different from what most people would think. At first I thought about doing crispy rice or our tuna pizza, something signature, but when I sat down with the team and we talked about doing food for 2,000 or 3,000 people, we switched it up. I love tacos more than anything, so we’re doing a taco with Korean flavors. We’re using the sauce from our potsticker, roasted tomato, serrano, garlic and ponzu. It should be fun.
Bellagio celebrated its 15th anniversary this month, and you’ve been at Yellowtail there for almost half that time.
Yes, I moved out here six years ago.
Was it nerve-racking to start your Las Vegas career at Bellagio?
Honestly, no. I was excited. Bellagio is such a big name. If you mention Las Vegas, everyone knows Bellagio, Wynn, MGM and just a few other places. They know the name and they know the water. So I was excited and happy to learn the system because I had worked my whole life in free-standing restaurants. It was fun and challenging.
There are so many Japanese and sushi restaurants on the Strip now. Is it difficult to create food and an experience that will stand out?
That’s not really an issue for us. What we want to do is make food people like to eat and make it more of a melting pot. That’s why these restaurants are successful. We have traditional food, but we highlight the Japanese-American or Japanese-Korean fusion. When Nobu was opening at Caesars Palace, people asked me Are you going to be okay? When we opened Kumi, they asked Is Yellowtail going to be okay? We’re all okay, and Morimoto is supposed to open in March. We’ll be okay. A lot of people didn’t know about Japanese food or Korean food or these kind of flavors, and now that they know, they want more. And they want to eat healthier and lighter and you can do that here.
Are there flavors or styles you wish you could incorporate at your restaurants but Las Vegas isn’t ready for them yet?
I eat a lot when I travel, and almost everything I like, we’re doing it here. There’s some stuff I can’t push here. I like fish eye.
That sounds like a tough sell.
Yeah, well, I’d like to push it, but I don’t know if I could sell it here.
What do you make with fish eyes?
A lot of stuff. You can make soup, but think about it. Could I put that on the menu? Maybe one crazy person is going to order it if they really love food and want to try something different.
Are we talking about soup with eyes floating in it?
Yeah! I love it. It’s really good. And frog, right? Frogs are good.
No, whole frog, in a soup.
Frog and fish eyes in the same soup?
No! (laughs) That won’t sell either. But I think people are getting more interested in different food now. Technology and travel is changing our palate.
You just opened Kumi this year. Are you planning to expand with more restaurants outside Las Vegas?
Yes. The next one will be in India, and then Jakarta. It will be called Akira Back, but we’re going to open Yellowtail somewhere else soon. We’ll keep expanding. My next challenge has to be outside [Las Vegas] because people have already eaten my food here. I want to share with other customers, and I really want a challenge.
If you could do another restaurant in Las Vegas, what would it be?
Korean barbecue, hands down, 100 percent. But you know how most Korean restaurants do really thin beef? I want to do American steak, like a Korean-style ribeye. No one has done that and I’m dreaming about it. Kimchi French fries? So good.