Interview: chef Matt Abergel (Yardbird + Ronin)

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Chef Hong Kong

Calgary native Matt Abergel took a circuitous path to Hong Kong. He worked in Vancouver and was cooking at Masa in New York’s Time Warner Center before relocating with partner Lindsay Jang to Hong Kong. He initially ran Zuma before they opened a chicken centric izakaya called Yardbird in 2011, drawing international acclaim. Ronin is their seafood-focused follow up. At both restaurants, Abergel interprets traditional Japanese cuisine with modern touches and local, seasonal ingredients. Learn more about this standout chef.

At what point did you realize that you would become a chef?

17, 18, 19, somewhere around there. At what point did I completely dedicate myself to it? I’d say 18. I got my first cooking job when I was 15, but I still have other interests. There are still other things I’d like to do. I wanted to go into industrial design, but I couldn’t deal with school. My time management skills were terrible. I always worked too much and was never able to put together a portfolio and barely graduated high school…It’s something I always wanted to do, but not enough to actually try very hard.

Did you design both of your restaurants?

I had a big hand in designing both of my restaurants. I worked with a designer as well. With Yardbird, I didn’t meet the designer until a month-and-a-half before we actually opened, or two months before we opened. We became friends quickly and did a chair together. He’s a furniture and interior designer. Then we did this one, and this is a total collaboration.

Going back to the origin, though, back to the roots, what’s the first dish that you ever remember cooking in your life?

It was probably with my grandmother, just cooking in her kitchen. She’s Polish-Russian, and just knishes, little Cornish hens, things like that.

So you said you started working in restaurants at 15. What was that very first restaurant, and what do you remember about that very first night?

It was a northern Indian restaurant that was located really close to the skateboard shop that I used to go and eat at all the time. I just remember burning all the hair off my arms in a tandoor and just being shocked at how dirty the restaurant was, at the time, I guess. Also, the fact that the whole restaurant was run by just two guys, and they slept in back of the restaurant, was an interesting production.

Seafood Hong Kong

What does a dish have to be for you to cook it at Ronin, versus Yardbird?

Our focus here is seafood. It doesn’t have to be anything, necessarily. All of my food, I try to keep it as simple as possible, try to pare things down, take things away, rather than adding things. Both places are the same style of cooking, and my philosophy of cooking is the same. One can just a little bit more involved because of the pace. Here is more relaxed. Yardbird is very hectic and busy and the volume is so much higher. Here we can take our time a little more. We do a lot more raw things here. Obviously Yardbird’s focused on chicken. The menu doesn’t really change much at Yardbird. It’s a staple restaurant where we wanted people to come three times, four times a week. And they do. Here it changes more frequently.

You talked about your philosophy. At what point do you feel like you started to develop your philosophy, and what are some of the key tenets?

After I worked at Masa and came to Hong Kong, and I worked for about a year-and-a-half at Zuma, by that time, I developed my own style, not even philosophy. I don’t think that much when I cook. It’s more just a style of cooking, which to try and make sure the ingredient is of the highest quality possible. Freshness is the most important thing. Freshness above everything. Freshness above origin, above anything, is most important to me. I try and stay away from luxury ingredients, typical ones, just to challenge myself. I don’t like using truffles, foie gras, or caviar, things like that. There are certain limitations I put on myself. Then it just comes down to simple flavors, things that people can relate to. There’s an automatic connection for people, especially people who understand Japanese food. Those flavors have connection. That’s important to me, classic combinations in Japanese food, but looked at a different way.

Tell me about the most recent dish you put on a menu.

There were two yesterday. It was a sardine, really simple, just a little bit of umeboshi paste, mentaiko, shiso, rolled and grilled over charcoal, cut in half and served with a piece of shiso, like a little lettuce wrap. Umeboshi, shiso, mentaiko, sardines, those are all very classic combinations. A lot of times, sardines are braised whole with an umeboshi dashi, or served with shiso. Those are very classic pairings.

What are your favorite aspects of running restaurants?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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