ASPEN " A local cook who earned his chops at Matsuhisa and Kenichi will face off with celebrity chef Bobby Flay later this month on the popular TV show "Iron Chef."
Akira Back moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Korea with his family when he was 15. The young Back enrolled at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale and quickly got into snowboarding.
"I was published in Transworld and Snowboarder magazine," Back said. "I was in many snowboarding movies. Back then we didn't make enough money. That's why I started cooking, to make money."
Back, who graduated from CRMS in the mid-90s, injured himself a number of times snowboarding, including four shoulder dislocations. He said he considered getting surgery but saw other friends who unsuccessfully tried to solve their shoulder problems. He decided a career change was in order.
"I got burned out snowboarding," he said. "I got more into cooking."
Back began as a second chef at Kenichi in Aspen and was later given some free reign to help open the Kenichi in downtown Austin, Texas, and the Kenichi in Kona, on Hawaii's Big Island. From there he began to travel and learn about food in Japan and Europe, and met master chefs such as Brian Nagao and Masaharu Morimoto.
Back returned to Aspen to work as the executive chef of Matsuhisa for the past three years, during which time he trained and worked with Nobu Matsuhisa.
It was during last year's Food and Wine Magazine Classic that Back got another big break. He made a tasting menu during the Classic, and a producer of "Iron Chef" approached Back afterward saying he loved the food.
"I said, 'Yes, I love the show, I grew up with it,'" Back said. "They asked who I want to compete with, and right now it's Bobby Flay. I'm very excited. I only hope the judges have an open mind. Obviously my food is very different [from Flay's]."
Since then, however, Back got another job offer. A company approached him and asked if Back wanted to open the Yellowtail restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Part of the job would include developing an entirely new menu. He jumped at the chance.
Since April, he has been working on the menu, which he will debut during the grand opening next spring.
He gets to fly to New York City on Sept. 19 to film the "Iron Chef" episode in which he will compete against Flay, cooking with the same ingredients for the judges. Back said he doesn't know when it will air on TV but that it often takes at least three months.
Until then, he is traveling to get new ideas for the menu.
"Everybody says it's Sin City, but there's actually a lot of stuff to do outside," Back said. "There's mountains here. But there is a lot to do; it's not that bad. In the future, I'm going to go back to Aspen. Aspen is my home. Opening a restaurant there, that's my dream, of course."