Although highly respected in the industry (and beloved by the diners that have patronized his restaurants for years), Galen Zamarra doesn’t make the news often. Ever since winning the James Beard Award for “Rising Star” at Bouley early on in his career, and going on to open the West Village’s cozy, committedly seasonal eatery, Mas (farmhouse), he’s essentially kept his nose to the grindstone, eschewing kitchen pyrotechnics and star-making antics for quiet professionalism and thoughtful, restrained food.
“A lot of times, chefs try so hard to reinvent the wheel, or follow fads, and ignore the basic principles and comfort of cooking. I’m less concerned with what’s going on in the kitchen than what’s going on in the dining room, which is people coming together over a meal and sharing a moment,” Zamarra says. “So when it comes to my cooking, I’m all about familiarity and simple pleasures, not shocking people with wild, foraged plants from subarctic regions that no ones ever heard of, or crazy, subterfuged science experiments. I’d rather find a nice carrot and a nice chicken and prepare them really well.”
And if anything has taught him not to overthink his cooking, it’s been his last three years of struggle with Mas (la grillade), where every item on the menu was smoked, grilled or charred — an overly fussy concept that never quite caught fire with the public. Which is why Zamarra recently decided to rethink the project completely, reimagining it as a hyper-seasonal venture called Almanac, slated to open later this fall.
We also chatted with Zamarra about why he’d never advise a young chef to go to culinary school, the soup recipe he’s been working on for the last 10 years, and his favorite way to spend a rare day off (picking acorns with his kids… awww)!
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I always loved to cook. And that love of cooking eventually turned into wanting to work in restaurants when I was about 12 or 13 (although, since there are laws against that, I couldn’t), which turned into wanting to be a chef which turned into wanting to own restaurants.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I started taking culinary classes at a community college after school, which looked good on my resume and gave me a rudimentary set of skills. And the first professional job I got was in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California, at one of the nicer restaurants in the area. The chef had worked in New York City before, and I knew, working under him, that I eventually had to do the same.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
The advice I should have listened to, but didn’t, was not to go to culinary school. If I had gone to either plumbing or air conditioning school instead, I would have saved myself a lot of money! Culinary schools just don’t have the repetitiveness that’s necessary when you’re trying to learn how to really cook something. They hand you a recipe, you do it once, and you move on to the next thing. Cooking’s a lot like music. You have to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” a million times before you’re ready to move on to Beethoven. And the whole point of restaurants is that you wind up repeating things again and again and again.
Mas (farmhouse) will live on, but what made you decide, after three years, to shutter Mas (la grillade), and open it as a new restaurant entirely?
I just felt like I wasn’t able to bring my original concept for the restaurant to life. It didn’t come across… the idea of foods being fired on wood, instead of gas or charcoal. And a lot of people didn’t embrace or enjoy or get the idea of it. They wanted to know why everything was so smoky, why the dishes were taking so long to cook. We also had issues controlling the smoke output so we didn’t upset the neighbors. We had to alter the concept so much at the end from what it was at the beginning that it all stopped making sense; we lost our passion for it.
How did you come up with the concept for Almanac?
I have these journals that I’ve been keeping since I first became the chef at Bouley. I was tasked with constantly coming up with new dishes, and I found that by the time I had conceptualized them and tested them and streamlined them, the ingredients they hinged on were already out of season. And I was always behind, always running to catch up. So I started keeping journals of what was in season when. I went to the farmers market and jotted down what I saw — these are the fish, these are the wild mushrooms that are around right now. These are the things people like, these are the things people don’t like, these are the ingredients that are really expensive. And I also jotted down ideas for dishes that wound up being 10 years in the making, like a Cold-Smoked Carrot Soup. I started fiddling with that one during my Bouley years, and didn’t fully realize it entirely until last year, at Mas (farmhouse)! I’d also consult my old almanacs for lists of ingredients that would come up in September, so I could start thinking up uses for them in August. So that’s really been the inspiration for the new restaurant; working in micro-seasons, like experimenting with ways to use both early and late spring rhubarb.
And when is the projected opening date?
It’s always hard to tell in this city; there are all sorts of approvals and permits that could take a day or a year to come through. But we already own this space and we’re not making too many crazy changes to the dining room. So we’re hopeful that we’ll be open by the end of October or thereabouts.
On a rare day off, what do you like to do (and eat) in NYC?
I have kids, and the reality of the life of a chef is, you don’t get a whole lot of time with your family. So any time off I have, I like to spend it with them. We cook at home a lot, and I also like to bring them into the food world. We go to the farmers market together. And right now, all the oak trees are dropping acorns around my house in New Jersey, so we gather up bagsful of them, take them to Flying Pigs Farm, and give them to the pigs. And later, we’ll end up serving those same, acorn-fed pigs at the restaurant.
What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment, honor or achievement in your career thus far?
Winning a James Beard Award for “Rising Star” when I was at Bouley was really special. I didn’t realize it at the time how special it was, because I was in my early 20’s, but now that I look back at it all of these years later, I truly understand how hard it is to win one. Because I haven’t won one since! But the success and longevity I’ve experienced at Mas (farmhouse) is also something I’m really proud of; we’ve been open for ten years now, and everyone says “wow, once you’ve made it two years in New York, you’ve MADE it!” But it couldn’t be anything further from the truth, because nowadays, when you’re six-months-old, you’re old news. Everyone wants to know what restaurant is opening tomorrow. So I’m grateful that Mas (farmhouse) has stayed open, that people still like it. It’s not in the press all that much, but that means less to me than customers consistently coming in and enjoying it.
After the new restaurant opens, what do you think is next for you? Another restaurant, a cookbook, perhaps, maybe some food TV?
Yes to practically all of those things! But what’s really, really important is for Almanac succeed, because obviously, Mas (la grillade) didn’t. There’s a unique challenge to running multiple restaurants. I know how to run one, but I really want to figure out how to run two. I want to keep people here and loving it, and after that, we can talk about books and T.V. and other restaurants and whatever!