The idea behind this new series of cookbook reviews is to find out if the books appeal to a home cook with average kitchen skills. I am this type of cook. I can make a banging ragu or coleslaw and I own a microplane, but I’m not going to wow anyone who comes over for dinner. That’s ok, I’m the Art Director: it’s not my job. I still love cookbooks though
First up, it’s Chicken and Charcoal (published by Phaidon) by Matt Abergel from the restaurant Yardbird in Hong Kong, and it’s all about chicken and yakitori. Designed by Michael Carter, there’s atmospheric photography by Jason Land and Siu Yan Fung and step by step photography by Alex Maeland.
This is a beautiful book. The cover is super simple, featuring a (very nice) drawing of a chicken; no food on the cover is the sign of a confident cookbook. It starts with some longer reads about the restaurant and the story behind it, moving onto the chicken and those yakitori skewers, a mix of vegetables, small plates and larger plates, plus some drinks for good measure. Lastly there’s a section on the staff; it sounds like a fun place to work…
The photography throughout the book is wonderful with lots of big, dark, moody, images that give you a real sense of the restaurant. Then, the food shots are the complete opposite: simple, precise and almost like diagrams — a breath of fresh air after the smoky front section. The only issue I have is that there are no captions for the photos. There are some really interesting images featuring an array of characters but who are they? Why are they in this book? I feel very strongly about captions, so expect this to be a common criticism. Dear Book Makers, I know they’re time consuming (we write them obsessively in Pit, please buy a copy to see) but they are SO WORTH IT.
Review by Holly Catford
Buy Chicken and Charcoal: Yakitori, Yardbird, Hong Kong
The first thing I tried was breaking up a whole chicken. I’ve never done this before and I now know how much we definitely need new knives. My chicken was a very different size of chicken to the one in the book, so it was a bit tricky following the pictures as they were a bit small. I think this is more of a guide for people who already know how to break down a chicken but want to learn how to do it in this precise way.
Next, I made my own tare (the dipping sauce used to coat the skewers while they cook) with the left over carcass. It’s pretty laborious but so worth it. I made a few changes to ingredients (vermouth instead of mirin, I’m sorry!), but Matt talks about everyone’s tare being different, so I guess mine was just a little bit more me. The recipe makes loads, so I’ve started dipping everything in it. It’s well worth making the whole batch and having this amazing stock in the freezer.
The star of the book is the yakitori skewers. We made breast, fillet, achilles and thigh skewers. Each one has it’s own page devoted to the skewering and again the pictures are a bit small but easier to follow.
The grilling pages follow the same pattern, with a page per skewer. This is extremely precise, down to the minute. We don’t have a yakitori grill or binchotan charcoal, so we managed to rig something up using some bricks and restaurant grade charcoal. It worked perfectly. The chicken was perfectly cooked although it wasn’t very clear how you garnish some of the skewers. Even I didn’t fuck these instructions up though, which is really saying something.
I really enjoyed this book, and it’s made me really appreciate the art of yakitori; it’s an incredible skill. If you’re a total novice (like me) then it’s not the easiest book to follow and I do wish that it had some alternatives to the specialist equipment, and an extra chapter to help someone who’s not so experienced. The design is great, minimal and very cool, just like you would expect for a modern Japanese cookbook. In contrast to the design the recipes are really complicated, but it’s a complex way to cook.
So, don’t expect anything to be easy or quick, but do expect it all to taste much better for the effort you’ve put in.