Korean Flavors Meet Sushi at Kumi
by brock radke
Chef Back created the 007 Octopussy roll as a wink and a nod to his father—and James Bond, whose movies helped him learn English.
It’s called Kumi, and it’s taking the Strip by storm. The second collaboration between chef Akira Back and the Light Group, Mandalay Bay’s beautifully serene yet high-energy restaurant, with a playful menu of Korean-influenced modern Japanese cuisine, is wowing diners on a nightly basis. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that many of these dishes—including whimsical sushi rolls and time-honored fusion classics—are inspired by Back’s colorful history and his food and family memories, blending an ample dose of storytelling into his creative cuisine.
Your restaurant Yellowtail has been a huge success for nearly six years now. What was your approach when creating Kumi?
I knew Yellowtail customers would come, and I wanted to hear them say that this food at Kumi is something different. My focus was on the Korean side, incorporating what most people know about Korean food, which is spice.
Where does that Korean influence show?
One place is the pork belly roll. Korean people love pork. Love it. We take pork belly and roll it in phyllo dough, then deep-fry it and put kimchi coleslaw on top. It’s a very popular dish, selling like crazy. But it also reflects my Korean-American background and reminds me of how the first time I had baby back ribs, I freaked out. I couldn’t believe how good they were. And of course you have to have coleslaw with the ribs.
You’ve also used Pop Rocks in a sushi dish again, as you did first at Yellowtail.
It connects to a lot of memories for people. At first I didn’t want to do that roll at Kumi, because it’s such a popular roll at Yellowtail, but I had to add it in.
Which dish connects you most with your own childhood?
We have a roll called 007 Octopussy, with cucumber and crab inside and spicy octopus on top, and that combination is from my memory of first drinking with my father and eating octopus. There’s actually a little 7 Up in that dish, though it doesn’t look like it, and that’s what we would drink with soju. It’s just a little sweet to go with the spicy and sour flavors. I don’t know why my dad chose octopus, but usually Korean businessmen would go to the bar and eat dried fish or octopus or squid because it was the cheapest thing.
Your mother did all the cooking when you were growing up.
Yes, I was so spoiled by my mom. Even when I go home now, I don’t touch anything; she cooks everything. I love her bibimbap and her kalbi, and every time I visit, those things are always there. At Yellowtail there’s a kalbi roll, and I made it once on Good Morning America, but I told them this recipe is from my mom.
Kumi’s Seoul Garden is basically bibimbap in a roll. Is that from mom, too?
Oh, yeah. You know, when I was younger, I hated cooking. It wasn’t until many years later, when I started really enjoying it, that I realized how hard it is to wake up every day and make breakfast, lunch, and dinner like she did. She makes everything the best. Kumi Japanese Restaurant + Bar, Mandalay Bay, 702-632-9100