This Chef's Busier-Than-Ever Seoul Restaurants Give Him Hope
Chef Akira Back knows this is a dark time for his industry. He feels it in his soul. He has restaurants around the world, including spots in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Dubai, that are closed due to COVID-19. He's especially worried about L.A., where in February he debuted the Beverly Center’s ABSteak, which he might temporarily turn into a drive-through restaurant. He still intends to open new restaurants in San Diego, San Francisco, and Dallas. Those plans have been delayed, of course.
But after seeing how busy his restaurants in South Korea and Vietnam are right now, Back wants American chefs to know that things will get better—sooner than they think.
In Seoul, where Back grew up, his two restaurants are busier than ever, even with social distancing restrictions. At the eponymous Akira Back in Seoul’s Four Seasons hotel, he’s had to cut seating in half. But in the last two weeks, the restaurant has seen more customers on a daily basis than it did before COVID-19 hit.
“Before when we were really busy, it was 175 covers,” he said. “Now, we’re between 175 to 200. It’s just surprising. It’s insanely busy. This has given me a lot of positive thoughts. I had thought it was going to take a really long time to recover.”
At Seoul’s Michelin-starred Dosa, Back is currently offering just one tasting menu instead of the two he previously had, but he’s also seen a surge in business. In Vietnam, Akira Back at Hanoi’s JW Marriott hotel reopened about two weeks ago and is also seeing an uptick in customers.
Back knows he’s lucky. South Korea contained the novel coronavirus better than most countries. Many Seoul restaurants, including Back’s, never fully shut down. The South Korean government has provided significant relief for unemployed hospitality workers. Also, there’s no Yelp in South Korea, so there’s less negative energy than what Back has encountered in the United States.
Obviously, many things are different in America. Back says he’s applied for every loan and relief opportunity he’s seen, but he hasn’t gotten any money. He’s studied every clause in his insurance policies and knows how terrible things are for small business owners here. But he thinks one very important factor is the same in the United States as it is in Asia.
“We’re human,” he said. “We’re going to go out and eat.”
We’re going to, Back believes, do things that allow us to feel social and normal. Back has noticed that old habits die hard in Seoul. The amount of takeout and delivery he’s done there has been small, but people have craved the experience of dining in a restaurant. Customers at his restaurants, even when presented with the option of ordering food via an app on their phones, want a physical menu.
“Nobody likes ordering on their phones,” Back said. “They want to feel like they’re eating like they used to. I also thought we could do a paper system where they can write down their order, like in a sushi restaurant where you check boxes. I thought it was a great idea, and not even one person did it.”
When a waiter is wearing a mask and standing at a safe distance, customers want to ask questions and place their order with the waiter.
Back has talked to industry friends in South Korea, and what he keeps hearing is that restaurants are busy and things feel safe overall. (A COVID-19 outbreak in Seoul linked to nightlife resulted in the indefinite closure of bars and clubs, but restaurants have remained open.)
His Seoul restaurants require customers wear masks to enter, but they can take them off to eat. The kitchens have ultraviolet light to disinfect everything from knives and cutting boards to cell phones. The cooks wear masks, hats, and gloves.
“Everybody asks me what I think about the industry,” Back said. “I honestly think it’s not going to be as bad as everyone is saying it will be. It’s bad for sure. A lot of restaurants will close. But I really think people are going to come out to restaurants."
Back does worry when he talks to his U.S. suppliers. The price of ingredients has increased. Some things are double the cost, he says. Restaurants will have to decide whether they’ll raise prices or deal with much lower margins until the supply chain gets closer to how it was before.
“I’m really debating that I’m not going to raise the price and I’m just going to eat it,” Back said. “One problem is that people haven’t been working. They’re going to be like, ‘This fucker’s robbing me.’ You know how social media works. If 90 percent of people think what we’re doing is great and 10 percent don’t get it, we’re screwed. They’ll say we’re super expensive.”
One thing that’s bothered Back during this crisis is when freebie-seeking American “influencers” slide into his DMs and ask if he’d be interested in a “collaboration.” He has no idea whether they even realize that his U.S. restaurants aren’t open.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “I really hope that shit goes away.”
Overall, he’s in a good mood because he believes in the goodwill of most humans and the resiliency of chefs. In L.A., he’s thinking about starting a butcher shop with Korean barbecue kits inside ABSteak. A dining table could be used for cutting meat while customers watch from a distance. It’s important, Back says, for guests to see how clean and safe restaurants and their employees are. If you’re a chef without an open kitchen, you might want to walk into the dining room so customers can see that you’re wearing PPE.
“We’re human,” said Back, who has been enjoying time with his family in Las Vegas. “I truly believe we’re going to figure it out. We always do. We’re going to get a vaccine. There’s no way that anything can stop hugging, eating with a friend, eating with a family, dining together. It’s part of your life.”