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Food & Drinks

Phaidon book on Yardbird yakitori restaurant in Hong Kong a mark of its success – learn the secrets of its chicken skewers

Sheung Wan restaurant has been a hit since it started grilling chicken skewers in 2011. Chef and co-owner Matt Abergel reflects on his journey and the two years he spent on a book of Yardbird recipes for prestige publisher Phaidon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 7:53pm

Matt Abergel, of Hong Kong restaurant Yardbird, has joined the ranks of chef-authors Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Andre Chiang and Magnus Nilsson with the publication of his first book of recipes by Phaidon.

The company is one of the world’s most prestigious high-end cookbook publishers, and being published by Phaidon is an accolade for any chef.

The restaurant, which Abergel and Lindsay Jang opened seven years ago in Sheung Wan, serves yakitori – Japanese skewers – of every conceivable part of a chicken, accompanied by sake.

The book, Chicken and Charcoal, tells some of Yardbird’s backstory, and features step-by-step instructions on how to break down a chicken into its various parts, how to marinate them and grill them over charcoal, as well as how to make various sauces. It also offers advice on drink pairings.

Work on the book took over two years, says the 36-year-old from Calgary in Canada.

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Phaidon approached him about three years ago, when the company brought three-Michelin-star chef Corey Lee to Hong Kong for the release of his cookbook, and they did a collaboration at Yardbird.

After being approached, Abergel sketched out a plan for a 352-page book, and recruited friends to help with layouts and photographs.

Deadlines started looming around the same time as Yardbird was making a stressful move from Bridges Street to a bigger location in Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, late last year.

The book features step-by-step illustrated recipes, so Abergel had to go over 3,000 photographs and write captions for each picture used. For someone who is used to standing up all day cooking, it was discomforting to have to sit hunched over a computer typing and using programs he was unfamiliar with.

“It felt like school because I had a lot of deadlines. Phaidon was always on my arse asking for this and that – which is what I usually ask my staff,” he says with a laugh. “For me, a big part of the stress was the fact that once the book is out, it’s unchangeable, and I wanted it to include everything in there in the past seven years, but some of it was left out.”

A few days ago, Jang posted an Instagram story showing Abergel flipping through his book. “I feel really satisfied with it,” he says, of having it in his hands. “It’s really strange and emotional holding it because I’ve been looking at it so long on the computer.

“Now it’s so much more real to read things on paper; it’s three-dimensional. I’m quite proud of it and the people who worked on it. It’s a real group effort.”

Abergel is keen for readers of Chicken and Charcoal, and fans of Yardbird, to understand what he and his staff do every day.

I’ve tried chickens from Australia, France, and Japan, and nothing comes close in flavour to the Hong Kong yellow chicken.
Matt Abergel

“People see the HK$45 (US$5.75) chicken on a stick but they don’t see what goes on from morning until evening – there are six or seven chefs breaking down 80 to 100 chickens, and many don’t know the intricacies of that. Restaurants usually just buy parts of chickens, but here our dedication is just different.”

He also hopes the book will inspire readers to make the dishes. “Anyone can buy a whole chicken. You can’t buy a whole cow. Our recipes are simple and totally doable, and I hope the book conveys that. You can find out a lot about the animal in the book.”

Yardbird is the culmination of Abergel’s love of, and dedication to, yakitori. He first fell in love with grilled meat on a stick when he was 17 years old and went to Japan after graduating from high school. There was a small yakitori place near the entrance to a park and customers would stand there and eat the skewered meats.

The yakitori Abergel ate there stuck with him – the flavour and simplicity of it – inspiring him to start working in a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver two years later. He furthered his culinary ambitions at the high-end Japanese restaurant Masa in New York, before moving to Zuma in London. He was then transferred to Zuma in Hong Kong in 2009.

Abergel knew when he left New York that he wanted to open his own yakitori place, and used his time at Zuma to refine his grilling skills before opening Yardbird in 2011. Almost instantly it became a hit on the Hong Kong restaurant scene.

“It took me by surprise and we were super fortunate, and Hong Kong is a big part of it,” he says. “Hong Kong was just ripe for what we were doing in terms of our approach to running the restaurant [no reservations], how we treat our staff [tips, no service charge], that didn’t exist here.

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“Seven years ago, there weren’t any independent restaurants other than Chinese ones. And we were focused on building a culture, a community around the restaurant,” Abergel says.

Another factor, he says, is that Hong Kong is what he calls a global community, where he and Jang have a lot of friends who fly in and out of Hong Kong for work, and drop by Yardbird for a bite to eat.

“We called them ‘transient regulars’ because they would comes three times a month – some even with their suitcase straight from the airport, or [when they] come back from China. We made them feel comfortable, even though they were away from home. [For] most other restaurants, it’s just about the food,” he says.

Another reason for Yardbird’s success in Hong Kong is what Abergel swears is the best chicken in the world; Yardbird’s are freshly slaughtered in the nearby Sheung Wan wet market before they are delivered.

“I’ve tried chickens from Australia, France, and Japan, and nothing comes close in flavour to the Hong Kong yellow chicken,” he says.

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Yardbird is celebrating the launch of the book on May 23 at the restaurant, and later this year Abergel will be promoting the book in Asia (Manila, Bangkok, Singapore and Taiwan), London and North America (New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles).

What about Canada? We’re working on it, he says.