Pro-snowboarder turned Michelin star Chef Akira Back recently opened his 23rd restaurant at the Ette Hotel in Orlando, Florida, with the majority of his locations inside high-end hotels such as Yellowtail at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, as well as restaurants at the JW Marriott Hanoi, the Four Seasons Seoul, and W Dubai.
Next spring, he’ll take over the entire food & beverage department at London’s new Mandarin Oriental, including two namesake restaurants and a lounge, plus breakfast and room service.
The 47-year-old who moved from Korea to Aspen, Colorado, as a teen, has hosted the James Beard House dinners seven times, opened a pop-up with KPop superstars BTS, and is generally obsessed with hotels.
Chef Akira recently talked to HOTELS about his views on hotel F&B as well as what he sees coming next.
HOTELS: What else do you have planned in the hotel F&B space beyond the Mandarin in London?
Chef Akira Back: We will next be opening hotel restaurants in Istanbul, Turkey and Florence, Italy. Istanbul will be an Akira Back restaurant within the JW Marriott Hotel Marmara Sea. It is a beautiful design with gorgeous views that I am very excited about. It will be opening in September of this year. Florence will also be an Akira Back restaurant that connects to a beautiful atrium courtyard and will have private meeting rooms that can also be used for karaoke and entertainment. The location is confidential for now as it has not been released publicly but it is scheduled to open in early 2024.
H: What is your best advice for a luxury hotel on how to best evolve F&B service and concepts considering trends?
AB: The key to operating anything profitably in F&B is to serve quality products and give great customer service. Have a brand concept and cuisine that is relatable to all types of customers. When I was a professional snowboarder and we would travel it was hard to find a place for a large group of us to all eat together because we all had different tastes and things we liked. Because of this, I have always tried to make sure my menus have enough variety and things to offer for people where they can enjoy along with a large number of friends or just on their own. Try to find chefs and managers that execute multiple concepts to help reduce costs and drive profitability.
H: How do you best and profitably operate room service?
AB: Room service is an amenity that is important to hotel guests. We offer signature dishes from our restaurants as part of room service, including the custom dishes and plates on which they are served on. This brings elements of the signature restaurant right into your room. It also helps drive people to the restaurants within the hotel as they then want to seek the full experience. With room service, timeliness is also important since guests do not like to wait long in their rooms to receive their orders.
H: How are you managing the new staffing dilemmas in your restaurant spaces?
AB: Having operational standards and training practices that have been proven effective all over the world helps keep turnover lower for us. We give a lot of incentives and opportunities for team members to grow both internally and externally. Also, we have great people at all our current locations, so I am able to offer team members promotions and growth opportunities all over the world. New team members see this, and it is spoken to them during the hiring process, which helps us recruit and train the next group of team members and leaders.
H: What food trends are you paying close attention to and what food trends are you acting on now?
AB: One trend that is not new but is becoming popular again is table side dishes and cooking at customers’ tables. We have a high-end Korean BBQ steakhouse called ABSteak which has been doing this for years with tableside grilling. Customers love to be a part of the cooking experience. Also, an unfortunate trend that everyone is keeping track of and trying to best manage is inflation. The cost of food is going up, so you need to make sure your recipes and ingredients are of the proper quality and level of price point for customers.
H: What is your take on alternative meat, veganism, and other food and consumer-related trends?
AB: I love it. It is another way for a chef to be creative in the kitchen while also delivering on customer needs. But I did not always feel this way. It is a challenge for kitchens to execute as not everyone has these dietary constraints. I started to enjoy cooking and experimenting with these types of foods once I started working in countries with religious beliefs that did not allow certain meats as well as researching and understanding the health benefits of this with more general customers desiring it on the menu.
H: How do hotels best develop and operate pop-ups?
AB: Pop-ups are a great way for a hotel to utilize restaurant space that isn’t currently being used where they can bring in a brand to operate and offer restaurant cuisine which normally they cannot. Or pop-ups can be great ways during a busy season in certain markets to have temporary structures to bring in this brand and cuisines which are not normally available in a hotel market. The Middle East and somewhere like Mykonos, for example, has had great success bringing in global brands for pop-ups during busy seasons and introducing the market to new cuisines and offerings.
H: Who has inspired you as a chef?
AB: My mother has always inspired me. I have taken a lot of the childhood dishes which she made for me with slight adjustments and served the dishes in my restaurants. For example, on the menu, we have the “Pop Rockin roll.” As a child, I was more into sweets and candy than real food. My mother started mixing a small amount of pop rocks candy in the food, to pique my interest to eat. As a chef, I brought my mother’s creativity to this dish – king crab + pop candy.
H: How are you designing hotel kitchens differently today to manage costs and cooking techniques?
AB: We have always made sure to design our hotel kitchens to be as efficient and functional as possible. We don’t like to waste any square feet as that is like wasting food. With a hotel kitchen, you need to be even more strategic during planning as it not only needs to serve the needs of the restaurant but also the needs of the entire hotel, including room service. We try to separate the different cooking areas in the kitchen based on the various cuisines being offered at the hotel, but it is not always easy if a kitchen is shared with two concepts and two chefs. If a kitchen is shared it is like having two tigers in a cage fighting over one piece of meat. The best way is to try and limit sharing by having it only be large expensive pieces of equipment while making the rest of the kitchen individualized.