A former snowboarding champion 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 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 Hotel Toronto, 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 probably shouldn’t be surprised 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.
“Nobu is the godfather. He’s the best. So for me it’s an honour. His place in Las Vegas is very close to my restaurants, as well.”
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.
The renderings I’ve seen of the Bisha’s rooms (one floor is being designed by rock star Lenny Kravitz) look quite Las Vegas-like, with big, bold splashy colours 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 Akira Back Toronto 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.”
HERE AND THERE
A study by the travel experts at Carlson Wagonlit says hotel prices around the world are expected to rise 3.7% next year as world economies improve and demand increases. Likewise, global air fares should jump 3.5 % next year, the company said … If you take taxis when you travel, and most of us do at one point or another, you’ll want to know that a study from a group called Carspring found that the cheapest fares are in Cairo. The company says it costs only $5.43 Cdn. to go from the airport to the city centre. You won’t even get out of the parking lot at Toronto Pearson for that kind of money. The Carspring study also found it costs just 71 cents Cdn. to go 3 km’s in a taxi in Cairo. The next cheapest city was Mumbai, followed by Jakarta. The most expensive? Well, if you want to go from the airport to the city centre in a taxi in Tokyo it will set you back roughly $242 Cdn. YIKES! Of course, anyone who doesn’t take public transit in Japan is crazy. The most expensive city listed for a 3 km ride was Zurich, at $32.65. Again, though, public transit is so good in that city you’d be nuts to take cabs unless you’re on an expense account and don’t care about pissing off your boss. As for Canada, the Carspring study said it costs about $47 to go from Toronto Pearson to the city centre, while in Vancouver it’s only $35.50 to get downtown from the airport. Toronto was 40th in the poll of 80 world cities, while Vancouver was listed as the 38th most expensive … Disney has unveiled plans for a Star Wars hotel at the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park they’re designing near Orlando. They’re also building a Star Wars theme park at Disneyland in California … The head of Qatar Airways has apologized for suggesting some of his company’s rival are “crap” airlines and for suggesting many of their flight attendants are “grandmothers.” … A study by a company called Ooma found that Lithuania has the fastest public Wi-Fi speeds in the world. Canada was 19th and the US 20th. The countries with the fastest OVERALL Internet connections were South Korea, Norway and Hong Kong. The countries with the slowest overall speeds were Venezuela, Paraguay and Namibia … Marriott Caribbean and Latin American Resorts are inviting travellers to save on summer vacations with a “summer special” at all nine participating oceanfront resort properties, offering up to a $50 USD daily resort credit when using the booking code SUM. The booking window is open from now until Sept. 5, for travel between now and Dec. 15, 2017. Properties taking part include the JW Marriott Cancun Resort and Spa, the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino and the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort … A study by hotels.com finds that Chinese travellers are increasingly turning to Canada. In 2016, Canada ranked 17th in the world in terms of destinations for Chinese tourists. This year, a study says Canada is tied with Australia for third place in terms of destinations Chinese visitors want to go in the next 12 months. That’s a remarkable jump up the charts, and one that should have Canadian tourism folks singing loud and clear. The study found that Vancouver and Toronto are the cities Chinese travellers want to see the most, while the Rocky Mountains are the preferred landmark to visit … Air BnB has expanded its Trips program to Vancouver. Trips allows users to book great experiences such as craft beer tasting or exploring great running/workout routes. The only other Canadian city with Trips is Toronto.