Interview: chef Matt Abergel (Yardbird + Ronin)

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Chef Hong Kong


JL: What are your favorite aspects of running restaurants?

MA: Obviously cooking. The kind of restaurants I run, having the freedom and doing anything I want. Having the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want, in the creative sense. To design a restaurant the way I want it to look. To design a kitchen the way I want it to work. We’re fortunate enough to have business, so I don’t have to constantly worry about money, or if I’m going to spend too much on an ingredient, or not enough on another. That freedom to create.

JL: What would the biggest challenges be then?

MA: On a day-to-day basis?

JL: Yeah.

MA: Times. Figuring out time with my kids, and two restaurants, balancing everything. It’s just a matter of time. That’s the most challenging thing.

JL: Would you say that you have a top selling dish at each restaurant?

MA: There are four top-selling dishes at Yardbird. Here, there’s one.

JL: What are they?

MA: Here it’s the flower crab with uni. At Yardbird, probably Korean Fried Cauliflower or meatballs. It’s one everyone orders.

JL: Tsukune?

MA: Yeah, that’s right.

JL: Why do you think those have been the standout dishes?

MA: KFC, Korean Fried Cauliflower, just ended up being a signature dish. It does taste really good, and it’s simple. The tsukune is one of those things, if you like yakitori, that’s what you measure yakitori by. Ours is one thing we worked on for three months, just to get the right combination of meat. We serve it with a marinated egg yolk. It’s a comfort food.

JL: What’s the key to a great tsukune?

MA: The right balance of fat to meat, and then texture. Whipping it enough so you’re activating the gluten and not using too much filler. Cooking from raw, but a lot of people will steam then first, and then grill them. It’s just balance. Everyone has a different style, everybody. I’ve had some crazy, amazing ones that don’t resemble anything like I’ve done. That’s a signature for every yakitori restaurant.

JL: And why do you think the flower crab is your top seller at Ronin?

MA: Flower crab really showcases a local crab. It’s also one of those things where the worst part of eating crab is taking out all the meat. We’ve done all the work for you. So you have literally a whole crab’s worth of meat. You order crab, it’s all done for you, and it’s showcasing a local ingredient. It’s Hokkaido uni. People in Hong Kong, they like those kinds of things. They like fresh crab. They like sea urchin.

JL: What is it about chicken that you find so inspiring?

MA: It’s the everyman’s food. It’s one thing that anyone if almost any culture, minus vegetarian cultures, grows up eating in an everyday situation, and grows up eating in a celebratory situation. You get together with your family, you eat chicken. You get together with your friends, you eat chicken. Then just the versatility of it. We break our chicken down into 16 different parts. Some restaurants in Tokyo, they break it down into 30 different parts. The flexibility would be a big part of it. That’s pretty much it.

I always wanted a restaurant where our friends could come, or our family could come, it’s not challenging. Chicken’s not a challenge, not to eat. It doesn’t feel like it has to be something special. We didn’t want a special occasion restaurant. We just wanted a restaurant where people could come and just hang out and eat and drink. That was it.

JL: Who else in the restaurant industry do you look to for inspiration, guidance or advice?

MA: Different people on different levels. There are a lot of people, from design perspectives, and things like that. From Chicago, he has Longman & Eagle and also has Parson’s Chicken & Fish, his name is Cody Hudson. He designed one of our sake bottles for us. Design wise, I really like what he does. Food-wise, there are so many people. Up until recently, Neta, they just recently disbanded, which is unfortunate, but they were doing amazing food. The guys at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Eleven Madison Park is on a completely other level, something I would never dream of being able to do. They’re on another level. Then just people who do the same thing, day in and day out, like all of Japan. Even these little noodle shops. People that don’t get tired of doing the same thing and getting better at what they do.

JL: How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

MA: I’m not, really. I try, but I’m not that good at it. I’ve never been good, even before I had a restaurant, I wasn’t a balanced person. Once I have my mind on one thing, I’m very obsessive. I’m always focused on a lot of things, and there are a lot of things I choose not to pay attention to. A lot of them are just choices, which don’t necessarily make me balanced. The choice not to answer e-mails, or the choice not to keep in touch with people I probably should. Taking time to do those things, that’s not balanced, but there are reasons for them, I guess. I choose to spend more time with my kids. I choose to spend more time in my restaurants, or maybe sleeping, and just trying to stay healthy, rather than getting pulled in all other directions.

JL: What would you like to be known for as a chef?

MA: Just really understanding the basic values and tenets and fundamentals of Japanese food, and getting people to respect that. That’s something I understand and have a firm grasp on, and respect. Being seen as having my own style, but still respecting Japanese cuisine and not trying to fuck with too much, not trying to change many things, just trying to do things better, and having a happy staff. I want to be known as a person who created businesses and restaurants that people were happy at, not only the customer, but the staff.


Joshua Lurie

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

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