Masa Takayama is renowned for his Japanese restaurant Masa, a serene, 26-seat space in New York City’s Time Warner Center where the chef presides over meals made from sublime ingredients and served at a luxurious tempo. His rarefied sushi, which may be lavished with caviar or truffles, and other dishes have garnered three stars from Michelin and put him at the pinnacle of the New York City dining scene since the restaurant opened in 2004; prior to this, Takayama lived in Los Angeles where he ran the equally renowned Ginza Sushi-Ko. In both cities, he is also known for leaving diners awestruck by the bill: Dinner for two at Masa is now easily a $1,500 affair.
When Takayama was asked to name the best up-and-coming chef in the world, it was a surprise to hear his choice was Matt Abergel, the owner of Yardbird, a hip spot in Hong Kong that specializes in chicken. It turns out, though, that Abergel and Takayama share the same culinary philosophy (use the freshest ingredients and express them cleanly and simply), and both value attention to detail in every aspect of their restaurants. Their similarities are partly the result of Abergel’s apprenticeship and eventual friendship with Takayama, and of Takayama’s help in developing the concept for Yardbird. To this day, Takayama offers advice down to the dipping sauce.
Abergel grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and started out cooking in a grocery store, at age 14. Five years later, he got his first job in a Japanese restaurant, in Vancouver. He continued to cook at Japanese restaurants in the city until he came to New York in 2008, in search of a mentor. With no formal culinary training, Abergel was almost too intimidated to apply as an apprentice at Masa, but with a push from his girlfriend at the time—Lindsay Jang, now his partner at Yardbird—he got the job. He quickly impressed Takayama with his innate understanding of technique, ingredients, and even dining-room aesthetics. In 2008, Abergel left Masa to become head chef at Zuma in Hong Kong, where he remained until opening the yakitori restaurant he had dreamed about for years.
Yakitori, a Japanese dish of chicken skewers grilled over charcoal, may be the basis for the menu, but Abergel prepares them inventively and in every permutation: thighs and wings as well as hearts, gizzards, and tails. In addition to the yakitori, some creative side dishes (such as Korean fried cauliflower, or KFC), a long cocktail menu, and a dining room with a hip-hop and funk soundtrack and a cool industrial design have made the restaurant a sensation from the moment it opened last year. One reviewer gushed, “The chicken here is being treated no differently than the finest piece of toro.” No surprise there.
MATT ABERGEL: When I came to New York, I really wanted to find a teacher—someone who would inspire me. And once I got to know you, I learned things that I never imagined I would learn: philosophy and technique, the dedication to every detail, the artistry behind everything you do. Everything in that whole restaurant [Masa] was designed and touched by you. Nothing was ever overlooked; everything was important. I learned an overall love for what you do, a discipline and an enjoyment at the same time.
MASA TAKAYAMA: And the whole time I was yelling at the kitchen, eh Matt? [Laughs] And I’m yelling in the kitchen the whole time.
MA: In the beginning you were, but it showed us how much you cared. There were things like the family meals, the food that we cooked for each other and shared together. We would eat so well as a family, as a group of people who worked 15, 16 hours together every day. You cared about us. You showed us that you can’t cook well unless you eat well.
MT: You are very passionate about cooking. Whenever I screamed, you just listened. You tasted, and whatever it was, you would feel it. You would taste it. You would see it. You would understand it. What the shape was, what the beauty is—you would get that,
very naturally. That’s very important if you are going to be a chef. Not too many people have this.
MA: There was no hierarchy in that kitchen. No one was more important than another person. In the Masa kitchen, there was no sous chef, no commis, no chef de partie. Everybody is just working as a team. That was the beauty of what our jobs were. I never made sushi, but otherwise, I did everything. I started cooking food for staff meals, cutting vegetables, working everything from the grill to the fryer to the pan. That’s the way I run my kitchen now.
MT: All the cooking, all the design—you got it fast. You’re a really good student.
MA: I think my whole restaurant is influenced by you. My restaurant is based on yakitori, which is a very basic and casual type of food, but it’s the same philosophy: taking one ingredient and expressing it simply. I try to keep it as clean and simple as possible, and use the freshest ingredients and be honest. I think that’s the thing I feel most connected with: All your food is very honest. There are absolutely no lies, nothing hiding. That’s the most important thing to me; that’s what I’m trying to do. Honest and simple and delicious food.
MT: When I was at Yardbird four months ago, I had everything: the chicken gizzards, the heart, yakitori. And of course, the big round of whole-corn tempura. It’s beautiful.
When I do that dish, it’s one bite-size piece of corn. But you did round, beautiful, almost baseball-size corn tempura. Beautiful, beautiful.
MA: Our restaurants are definitely very different. But there is that similar honesty. I grew up with loud music, and all the things I put in my restaurant are things I grew up with. And I think the same goes for you: What you’ve been surrounded by is what influenced you. It’s just different generations.
MT: You have a very, very popular restaurant.
MA: The aesthetic is something I like. And I like to take people’s minds off things and put them at ease. I’m not trying to confuse people with flavors or textures or anything like that. Everything is very straightforward and clear: no garnishes that you can’t eat, nothing superfluous on the plate. If you read my menu it would say knee bone with salt and pepper, and that’s exactly what it is: a knee bone with salt and pepper, grilled over charcoal. It’s really that simple. And that’s what the design is, too.
MT: That idea—what’s comfortable for the customer is comfortable for me too—that’s an idea I think you learned from me. A very simple, comfortable place where everyone is enjoying themselves—that’s very much what your place is like.
Hey, Matt. I have something very special, a nice sauce for yakitori. I want to give you the recipe.
MA: I’m listening.
MT: I found something beautiful with herbs and a lot of different spices. It’s very, very incredible and very good for yakitori. I’ll see you [soon] in Japan; I’ll give it to you then.
MA: Domo arigato.