Matt Abergel | Rewriting the menu

28 Feb 2016
5 min read
Matt Abergel thinks it’s human nature to crave food cooked on charcoal. His incredible focus on individual ingredients has brought a new definition to what is classed as a modern Hong Kong restaurant. By Sophie Hull exclusively for FOUR Asia…
Love of simplicity

Give most chefs one ingredient to focus on, and they’ll be bored in a week. But four years after opening Yardbird, focusing on Japanese charcoal-grilled chicken (yakitori), Matt Abergel and his first restaurant are still going strong.

Named one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants in 2014 on the prestigious San Pellegrino list, Yardbird draws eager crowds with a fresh, simple approach, contemporary music and a great range of cocktails, shochu, sake and beer. Matt opened it in 2011 with his partner at the time, Lindsay Jang.

The lion’s share of the kitchen staff’s day is spent in butchering around 50 fatty “triple yellow” chickens. The corn-fed birds are from a local producer and are killed that morning, ensuring a unique freshness. Only the chicken heads go in the bin—every other tidbit and scrap is used, with even the carcasses used to flavour stocks or sauces. There are no ovens in the tiny Yardbird kitchen, just a grill fed with oaky Binchotan charcoal for an unmistakably smoky flavour. Diners order their favourite chicken parts from skin to heart, with the tender “oyster” proving most popular. Service continues until everything prepared that day is sold out.

Matt opened his second restaurant, Ronin, in 2013 and most recently Sunday’s Grocer, selling sandwiches and alcohol, including their own brand of sake and shochu.

When I meet Matt at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, he is casually dressed in pale chinos and a white Yardbird t-shirt. He comes across as focused and savvy. Running three thriving food businesses seems precocious for a 33 year old, but then the Canadian chef did start cooking before he had even hit his teens.

“I was really into Asian food as a kid. When I was 12 my mum would drop me off at a huge Asian grocer, I would buy a bunch of stuff and make dinner for friends and family,” he says.

At 19 he realised he should be cooking the food he liked eating, so asked for a job at his favourite Japanese restaurant in Vancouver. After learning the ropes, he moved to New York and asked Masayoshi Takayama of legendary sushi restaurant Masa for a job. He was offered a day trial, which turned into a formative three and a half years, before moving on to Hong Kong’s massive Zuma for two years, with 36 chefs under him.

“[Masa] is the most creative person I have ever met but also the most technical,” says Matt.“It’s really all about attention to detail; caring about things that no one will ever notice, and not compromising. There’s a million easier way to do things but it was never about the easy way, it was about the best way, the cleanest and most precise way. And [having] a singular approach to ingredients.”

Ronin is as casual and funky as Yardbird, but only has 14 bar-style seats and focuses on seafood. It boasts over 100 varieties of Japanese whisky, as well of plenty of other tipples for the enthusiastic punters. Around 80 per cent of the ingredients are market bought, on the morning before service.

“Ronin was my dream restaurant after I had already done my dream restaurant,” he says.“As far as the local stuff goes, it’s a matter of going and picking yourself because you realise that a lot of the amazing things are not in a catalogue for you to order from. The markets just make me so happy.”

The menu is rewritten every day to fit what they did, or didn’t, find at the market.“Anytime I see something we don’t know what it is we just buy it and try it. Often I’ll come in and say ‘I don’t know what this fish is, do you know what this fish is? What we do with this fish?’ It’s collaborative.”

And does the constant exploration of new ingredients sometimes end in disasters? “Yeah, we just don’t serve them,” he grins.

This approach means that there are few mainstays on the menu, but there are dishes that evolve over time, and it’s these that Matt is most proud of.“We’ve probably done 30 or 40 sardine dishes. I like the one we have now. It’s a sardine tartare but it’s more about our attention to detail. We keep them cold in ice water. We fillet them to order so you have this really irony, deep, rich flavour. The plate is frozen. The bowl that we mix the sardines in is sitting on a bowl of ice. We serve it with ginger, sesame and spring onion that we wash for a long time so you don’t have too much of that oniony flavour but you have all of this beautiful texture. It’s those small things that bring us to where people can really appreciate the ingredient.”

And with his experience in fine dining, why did he choose such a simple style?

“I’m a no bullshit person. I don’t like unnecessary things. There is a certain satisfaction when your friends can afford to come and eat in your restaurant. We wanted a restaurant that people could come three days a week, and they do. But that’s also the style of food… the kind of food you do crave. It’s human nature to crave chicken on charcoal. You walk past and you think ‘oh that smells good’. We just wanted to be the neighbourhood restaurant.”

His refreshing love of simplicity is not only apparent in his food, but also in the restaurants’ design; minimal to the point of utilitarian, but not cold. He lists Dieter Rams, Takashi Sugimoto, Friso Kramer and Charles and Ray Eames as favourite designers. He is also continually inspired by chef Masa, regular trips to Japan, and Hong Kong itself.

“I think it’s the best city in the world to be a chef right now. It’s a very supportive city. People love to eat; they eat out every night. You can get any ingredient you want, wherever it’s from. I also just love the energy, I love the possibilities. I think it’s the first place I’ve ever felt at home.”

There are countless Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong, so what makes Matt’s Yardbird and Ronin restaurants stand out in such a competitive market?“We’re quite honest in what we do and our service is amazing. We just care. We didn’t ever cut corners. We stuck to our guns and our formula worked.”

Although local success was followed by featuring on the Asia’s best restaurant list and international acclaim, it’s clear Matt hasn’t paid much attention to the hype (or the fact that Yardbird slipped off the 2015 list).

“It’s a little bit ridiculous because it’s never what we were after at all. And I can think of 49 restaurants in Tokyo alone that are better [than us]. We really appreciate that it happened but we love it when chefs say nice things about us, or that we are the first stop for a lot of people that come to Hong Kong. That makes me happy.”

Matt is concentrating on creating “something of value” with his three restaurants and building up his staff, many of who have been with him since he started out in Hong Kong.“I want more for my chefs. I want to open restaurants for them, small restaurants that really reflect Hong Kong. I want to direct them, give them motivation, to see them grow. I’m the father figure of the restaurants, that’s my nature. It’s like I have 35 kids.”

While ambitious Matt admits he has “a ways to go with a lot of things”, just don’t dare to suggest straightforward expansion.

“We’ve had a lot of offers to expand to other countries. Everyone always says ‘oh it’s such a scalable concept’. They are my least favourite words in the world. I would rather in fifteen years to look back and think ‘this was a really great time in our life’. I don’t want people to be like, ‘I went to the Yardbird in Singapore, it was kind of shit’. I don’t want to have any regrets.”

Find out more about the culinary career of Matt Abergel