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November 21, 2014

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Before Yellowtail and Kumi, chef Akira Back was a pro snowboarder

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Steve Marcus

Akira Back, executive chef at Yellowtail in Bellagio, holds a Chego taco during Vegas Uncork’d “Follow That Truck” at Bellagio on Thursday, May 20, 2012.

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Chef Akira Back.

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Chef Akira Back's Kumi at Mandalay Bay.

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Chef Akira Back's Kumi at Mandalay Bay.

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Chef Akira Back's Kumi at Mandalay Bay.

Chef Akira Back

Chef Akira Back

Editor’s Note: While Robin Leach takes his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy, many of our Strip personalities have stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. We continue with chef Akira Back, who opens his second Las Vegas restaurant — Kumi at Mandalay Bay — today. The hip, hot Korean kitchen king of Yellowtail at Bellagio credits James Bond(!) with starting his celebrity chef career.

Growing up in Korea, everyone loved baseball. We were fanatics, and, by age 7, even I had a favorite pitcher. Everybody worshipped him, so, naturally, I wanted to be a baseball player. I asked my parents and started training in baseball right away. In Korea, even though you’re young, the training is really rough.

At the beginning, I really loved it, and I was always practicing and playing. I was captain of my Little League, so I was pretty much the kid with a lot of promise. If I kept it up going in that direction, I would make it.

Eventually, my passion for baseball faded because it became hardcore. I did it because I wanted to be cool and have fun with it. However, every game we lost, parents would go crazy. Coaches went crazy, too.

I wanted to get out, but I couldn’t tell my parents that I wanted to give up because it was really difficult for me to tell them that I wanted to be in sports — but not baseball.

In Korea, if you want to be a baseball player, you play baseball longer than you're in school. Every day, I was playing and practicing 10 hours or longer. Suddenly, my father had the opportunity to move to America because of work, and we relocated to Aspen, Colo.

Everything was different. Back then, Aspen didn’t have Asians, Mexicans or blacks; everyone was white. I was 15 at the time and found many of them to be very interesting with their mohawks, blue hair and nose rings and wearing black leather jackets that said “Anarchy.”

I followed them around since I didn’t speak English, and I noticed that they were skateboarding and snowboarding. I started to think the only way I can be their friend is if I skateboard and snowboard.

I learned how to speak English by watching movies — James Bond was my favorite — and television, at school and out snowboarding. I tried skateboarding, but it was difficult for me; snowboarding I picked up fast.

I fell in love with it, it became my good friend, and I became a professional snowboarder. After I became a pro, everything started happening big time back in Korea. The sponsors went crazy, the X Games popped up, and everyone wanted me to compete.

I was known for filming and appearing in magazines because of my big jumps and stunts. They wanted me to compete, and, once again, the sport was becoming what I didn't want.

About this time, I dislocated my shoulder and hips and sprained my ankle. I was young, but my body was no longer the same, and I was doing a lot of therapy. So I had to decide if I wanted to go in a different direction.

My parents told me, “We gave you freedom to do whatever you want to do, but now we think it’s time you go start your bushiness and become like your dad.” Fortunately, I found American school easy, and my grades were really good.

I told my parents that I had to try something else. They never knew I would end up in a restaurant. I had never cooked in my life! My mom cooked everything for me. I applied at an Asian restaurant, and the guy told me I had to shave my head because of my blue hair.

I went back the next day after doing it, and he smiled and said, “OK, maybe you’re serious. Come back.” I did that for seven days before he finally hired me. He knew my parents, and I don’t know if they spoke, but he put me in the dish pit. This was when I was 20, so 18 years ago.

It took three years until I fell in love with cooking. One day I got a phone call about a big Las Vegas hotel project. They wouldn’t tell me about the restaurant, so I turned it down, as I was happy in Aspen.

They kept calling me to fly down to do a tasting, and that was it. I’ve been at Yellowtail at Bellagio for five years now. It’s become a great success, and I couldn’t be happier.

Now we have the new restaurant Kumi at Mandalay Bay opening today. Kumi means beautiful in Japanese. The food will be more Korean-American, and I will be using a lot of spices.

The restaurant takes the place of an older restaurant space. Kumi is very modern and seats 300 people. We’ll be cranking up the music at night, so it’s going to be hip and young.

One of our signature dishes is 007 Octopussy. When I see an octopus, I think of "James Bond." It’s the movie I grew up watching in America, and it helped me learn English. I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to Britain’s most important super spy.

Check out our other guest columns from “X Burlesque” producer Angela Stabile, “X Burlesque” star Meeka and “Raack N Roll” host Robert Nash, “The Rat Pack” stars Sandy Hackett and Lisa Dawn Miller, and producer Seth Yudof.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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