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Chicken and Charcoal: “My Cooking is more Craft than it is Art”

Chicken and Charcoal: “My Cooking is more Craft than it is Art”

Matt Abergel talks Chicken and Charcoal as we dip into his debut cookbook from cult yakitori restaurant, Yard Bird, in Hong Kong.

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Matt Abergel is something of an authority on Yakitori, having devoted the last seven years of his life to cooking Japanese style skewered chicken over charcoals at his Hong Kong restaurant, Yard Bird. 

Fortunately, for all those chicken aficionados out there the chef and co-owner of the cult yakitori hangout has finally put pen to paper in his debut cookbook, Chicken and Charcoal, published by Phaidon, showcasing his beak to tail cooking craft.

The Canadian skateboarder turned chef and self-confessed chicken heart lover has captured all the inspired recipes every home cook needs to fully understand the complexity of grilling chicken skewers. From how to source the freshest of chickens and how to butcher them to how to pick the right charcoals to the best cocktail recipes to wash tastiest skewers down with.

Matt describes his restaurant as a place for “celebrating, relaxing or forgetting your day and having fun” and that's all reflected in the design led book with a slew of graphics by Evan Hecox.

We caught up with Matt during his book tour to discover more about his enduring love of chicken and charcoal. For those that want to get started right away, Matt has already shared his 6 top teriyaki tips for beginners.

What inspired you to write the book?
I think it’s a chronicle of what we’ve done over the last seven years. That’s what I’ve dedicated a lot of my life to for the last seven years and I just wanted share it, make it permanent. One day the restaurant will close but the book will still be there.

How would you describe yakitori?
Chicken on skewers that are taken a little more seriously. The idea behind it is to separate the chicken into pretty much every part imaginable. Cooking those singular parts at one time so that you can achieve the perfect cooking on them. Every part of the chicken cooks differently – if you roast a whole chicken some parts are dry, some parts are burnt, some parts are undercooked. So, you’re taking out that variable and really being able to focus on one thing. It’s a really very relaxing way of cooking. Just doing one very simple thing.

How seriously do you get taken as a Western chef re-creating Japanese flavours?
I’ve been doing this since I’m 19 and I’m 36 now. It’s kind of in 2018 you can cook whatever you want. I’ve gone through a lot of b******t of people saying “You’re not Japanese.” I’ve spent the last 18 years figuring out and studying this kind of cuisine and immersing myself in it as much as I can. I’m not a puritan. The beauty of cooking Japanese food as a western person I don’t have the cultural restraints or bound by cultural rules. I’ve been able to kind of go places and learn things that would be difficult for Japanese chefs to learn.

What’s your favourite recipe in the book?
Tare sauce – the mother sauce of yakitori. I really enjoy making it. It’s basically a master stock like in Chinese cooking. There’s a master stock for a restaurant that they will keep for years and it’s always replenishing itself, so that it becomes a living part of your restaurant. We’ve had the same at least some of it for the last 7 years. Some yakitori restaurants have had the same tare for 200 years. It’s a really interesting recipe. It just changes as you go. Because our food is consumed so quickly, it just has a little bit of history and life in it and you can track where we’ve been and where we’re going and how technique have changed. 

What’s your favourite vegetarian recipe in the book?
The corn tempura. It’s a fun one to make. Hundreds of times I’ve been asked how to make it and people have funny theories about how we make it. Like we scoop the corn into a mould or freeze it. I think we could really break that one down to show you how to do it. Ingredient wise - It’s only 3 ingredients and one of them is water. It’s pure technique and practice. A very simple product.

How would you encourage the unadventurous eater to get more experimental with all parts of the chicken?
You can’t go to the grocery store or local butcher and buy a whole cow, but you can go to a local butcher and buy a whole chicken. In the book we try to make it as detailed as possible and it’s possible to do anything – so if you want to just buy chicken wings – we make four different skewers out of one wing. It’s just a matter of having a little bit of patience and interest. But you can start anywhere.

Why cook beak to tail?
I’ve got to be honest - it’s not about sustainability for me. I’m not much of a crusader of that kind of thing. It’s a product of what we do, I think that’s just how we cook naturally. It’s not liked the driving force behind what I do. What I cook the way I’ve been taught over the years, especially in Japanese cooking, is that we just don’t waste. I’m far less concerned about the aesthetic of what food looks like versus throwing away half of the chicken or fish just to get this perfect piece. I don’t believe in that kind of cooking but I’m also not trying to save the earth.

Design plays a big role in the book and the restaurant, why is that?
It’s really important to me. I always wanted to do industrial design as a career and it always got away from me. I was always cooking at the same time. Now I do both things that I love and learn. It’s definitely a huge inspiration for me. Sometimes I spend more time on design than I do on cooking. I’ve been very fortunate to bridge the gap between what I always wanted to do when I was younger and what I’ve done here.

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