Long before Akira Back became executive chef at Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant and Lounge, his home was in Aspen, Colo., where he was a professional snowboarder as a teenager and had blue hair. After a snowboarding injury, he said he had two career choices: follow in his father’s footsteps and take over his business, or do something else.
That something else turned out to be cooking at his favorite Aspen restaurant. There, Back found a mentor in chef Kenichi Kanada—although it was on the condition that Back shave off his blue hair. He in turn helped open Kenichi restaurants in Austin, Texas, and in Hawaii. Then Back, who was born in Korea and traveled for two years working and learning from different chefs, including Masaharu Morimoto, the Iron Chef legend. He returned to Aspen to work with Nobu Matsuhisa and, in 2004, took over as executive chef at the world-renowned chef’s restaurant there.
In 2008, he battled Bobby Flay on Iron Chef after a producer had tasted Back’s work in Aspen. That same year celebrity hot-spot Yellowtail opened in Bellagio. He has become a rising celebrity himself, but humbly attributes his success to good fortune.
Staying true to his roots, Back, now 35, still snowboards for fun. His self-titled book, written in Korean, debuted May 17, and he would like to publish an American version, too.
The Bigeye Tuna Pizza is Yellowtail’s signature dish and his mother’s favorite. It was inspired by his travels.
“I came here and I wanted to make my own version of what I learned from people and I wanted to twist it with my origin of taste,” he says. “I love Mexican food, so I use tortilla. You have to use some sort of raw item, and tuna, I think, is common to people no matter what.” Back chose this dish to share because it is easy to make at home (aside from pan searing the tortilla, every other ingredient is raw) and it represents America the melting pot.
Bigeye Tuna Pizza
Photo by Peter Harasty
- 8-inch flour tortillas
- Fresh cracked black pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil
Heat flat-top griddle to 250 degrees. Brush each side of tortilla with extra virgin olive oil and black pepper. Place tortillas on flat top with a sheet pan on top and a few pans on top of the sheet tray to weigh it down. Briefly cook the tortillas until brown on both sides. Remove from heat and let cool at room temperature until crispy. Place a sheet tray on top of the cooked tortillas so they don’t curl while they are cooling.
- 50 grams Shiragiku (rice wine vinegar)
- 25 grams soy sauce
- 7 grams lemon juice
- 325 grams mayonnaise
Combine the vinegar, soy sauce and lemon juice to make the ponzu. Slowly whisk the ponzu into the mayonnaise, combining thoroughly.
For sliced red onions: Remove outer layers of onion and slice onion in half from stem to stem. Using a mandolin, slice onions as thin as possible without compromising their structure. Once sliced, place onions under cool running water until there is no longer any onion smell. Drain and set aside.
Slice the tuna as thin as possible and shingle it as to make the separation easier. Keep in cooler and set aside.
Take one tortilla and brush the ponzu mayo over top—just enough to coat the entire tortilla (roughly ½ ounce). Scatter the sliced red onions over the tortilla, spreading them evenly. Cover tortilla with thin-sliced tuna; removing any remaining tuna pieces. Crack fresh black pepper. Cut tortilla into eight even slices. Transfer to plate and drizzle white truffle oil over top (2 tablespoons). Sprinkle micro shiso and bull’s blood all over and finish with maldon sea salt. Serve at room temperature.
Yellowtail sommelier Yokiko Kawasaki recommends Moon Rabbit, a sparkling sake from Japan ($10 for 12-ounce bottle at Lee’s Discount Liquor). “Moon Rabbit has a nice gentle aroma of lychee and Muscat, so it matches with pizza’s truffle oil and sweetness from tuna and ponzu aioli.” If you’d prefer wine, she suggests Santa Margherita 2008, a pinot grigio from Valdadige, Italy ($18 at Lee’s). “Pinot grigio has a decent acidity, and it goes well with acidity of the vinegar in ponzu sauce. Also it’s a bit dry, so it cuts off the sweetness of the dish and balances everything up as a whole.”