Q&A with Matt Abergel of Yardbird

Digest

August 15, 2011 | BY Lynn Fung

We sit down with the chef/owner of the new yakitori restaurant to discuss chickens, Masa and what’s so different about his new restaurant

Yardbird, the new yakitori restaurant on Bridges Street that specialises in chicken, has generated a lot of buzz for a restaurant that has been open for less than three weeks and seats only 40 people. We stop in one sunny afternoon just before dinner service to chat with Matt Abergel, the chef and owner of Yardbird, to see what the fuss is all about.

Asia Tatler Dining: Tell us a little bit about yourself: how did you get started as a chef?

Matt Abergel: I started cooking when I was 15 and learned cooking on the job. Traditionally cooking is an apprenticeship, it's a craft and that's the difference in that now it's looked at as a profession and as something modern. That's sad, I got into because it is a craft. All the equipment I use is just a tool, I don't look at myself as an artist or genius. You can see the food that I cook is very simple: I try to make tasty and simple things.

ATD: It's not that common to see a white chef in a Japanese restaurant. What is it about Japanese cuisine that draws you?

MA: The Japanese care about craft, it's very much about getting better at one thing and focusing on it. It's not about the chef, it's about the food and ingredients. Also all the Japanese chefs I've ever worked with were always very giving with knowledge. They want to show you everything, they want you to do it just the same as they could. And that allowed me to excel faster than I could have excelled in another environment.

ATD: You worked at the legendary Masa in NYC: what experience did you gain that is now helping you at Yardbird?

MA: Masa is the formative time of my career. I was there for almost four years and that was where I learned to do things as perfectly as possible and also not touching things too much, not overdoing anything and just being proud of the ingredients. Even though Masa is one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, there are still a lot of things that we never touched. We were just the middlemen with this beautiful fish, cutting it and serving it at the right temperature, making sure that it's presented properly.

ATD: And what about Zuma, which is known for a more modern style of Japanese cooking: is Yardbird more traditional or innovative?

MA: The way I'm cutting the meat is traditional, I've taken a few liberties and changing a few things but fairly subtle. Traditional yakitori is salt or sauce-based. I only put sauce on two of my skewers and the rest are salt-based.

ATD: How did you come up with the concept of Yardbird and why chicken?

MA: It's just something I've always loved, even as a kid, a fat kid. I'm half Moroccan-Israeli and we would have barbecues every Saturday and eat chicken hearts. As a kid I would chew on the bones and my grandmother would always make chopped liver. I was never a breast guy, I liked the dark meat.

ATD: Where do you source your chickens from?

MA: From the New Territories, it's difficult here because there are strict rules about how many chickens can be in one area at a time so we source from two or three farms. I go through a guy in Sheung Wan, they get shipped to him and he slaughters them and sends them to me. There is no such thing in China or Hong Kong as cage-free, free-range or organic, none of it exists really. We just go for as natural as possible. They are healthy, they are killed the day of. It's quite a difference between a factory-farmed chicken from the US, which look crippled: their legs are small, and their breasts are big.

ATD: You've described Yardbird as your dream restaurant, a culmination of all your ideas. What makes Yardbird different?

MA: We have three rules. First is "sharing is caring", we want everyone to share, we don't want people to be ordering individual dishes. Second rule is everything is limited. We have no walk-in refrigerator, I have a tiny freezer that I use for ice cream when I make it and some edamame, and everything comes in fresh every day. My goal is to sell out at the end of the night. It is a great way to control my cost and my quality, and it gives the customer the freshest ingredients. The third thing is the service charge. We have a great service team and they deserve to be paid for that in gratuitous, whereas most other restaurants are serving service charge that goes to the house, not the waiter. [Ed's note: Yardbird has no service charge, encouraging customers to tip according to the quality of service received.] We want to keep our staff, we want our staff to enjoy working here and we want them to be happy. To do that, the staff needs to make money.

ATD: You've been in Hong Kong for three years, what are some of your favourite restaurants in Hong Kong?

MA: I go often to Lily and Bloom and I drink Old-Fashioneds and eat fried quail. Rene [Michelana, the executive chef of Lily and Bloom] is a great chef and I enjoy his food. I go to Blue Smoke, I go wherever my friends are working.

ATD: Where do you see yourself in five years? Opening more restaurants or do you plan to stay focused on Yardbird?

MA: I'm pretty satisfied right now, I have my hands full. I want this restaurant to be busy, I want to see the same people all the time, I want people to come back. I model Yardbird on the real izakayas in Japan, the neighbourhood restaurants. You walk in and you feel at home.