When Galen Zamarra first opened Mas (farmhouse) (39 Downing Street, 212-255-1790) in 2004, he dreamed of building a menu with locally sourced ingredients. At the time, though, it wasn’t so easy. “There was no infrastructure for a local food system then,” he says. “The Greenmarket’s been around for a long time, but the Greenmarket can be pretty limited. Even local dairy — the fact that you can get it on a restaurant level is pretty new.”
The chef worked at sourcing piece by piece, forging relationships with nearby farmers and, as he’d done since his days in David Bouley’s kitchen, painstakingly documenting the rise, fall, and pricing of seasonal ingredients in a journal. Those journals helped him plan menus over the years, and they also served as inspiration for Almanac (28 Seventh Avenue South, 212-255-1795), the restaurant he opened in November in his old Mas (la grillade) address. “I wanted to do something new here — Grillade was a big hassle to run,” says the chef, citing issues with controlling smoke to appease the neighbors. “The inspiration for Almanac came from these journals that I’ve been keeping since I first became chef at Bouley. That was the first job where I was responsible for coming up with dishes, and it was really a challenge for me. Things came into season, and by the time I came up with a good dish, maybe the season was over. So I had a journal, and I’d write daily what was in season, or what went out of season, including fish that was available at the market, mushrooms, cheese, and flowers. Then I had these journals, and I would look ahead and see what was coming in mid January, and create dishes so that when it came, we’d be ready for it.”
That’s what he’s doing at Almanac, which Zamarra says is a bit of an expansion on what he’s doing at Mas (farmhouse). On the menu, that translates into dishes that focus on a single ingredient, like a current appetizer of acorn squash. “We use it in four different ways,” he says. “We poach it, grill it, and it goes into a salad. We use the seeds to make a pesto, and we dehydrate it into chips. And we take some of the juice and poaching liquid and make a vinaigrette.” The idea, he says, is to celebrate the height of the acorn squash by using it completely and showing its flexibility.
Zamarra’s foray into food started young. “I don’t really have a sexy story,” he says; cooking was a hobby from a young age. Because he wasn’t old enough to get a job in a restaurant at 13, he enrolled in after-school cooking classes in his hometown of Santa Cruz, California, instead. In high school, he began working in professional kitchens, and he was hooked. A family friend suggested he go to the Culinary Institute of America, and so he packed his knives for New York.
The young cook landed an internship at Bouley, which he says he “instantly loved.” He ended up staying for eight years, broken up by a year-long hiatus during which he cooked in France. He’d planned to stay in France, too, but couldn’t get a visa. At Bouley, he worked his way up to chef de cuisine, and helped it as it transitioned from bakery back to fine dining restaurant, for which he received a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef.
He exited after 9-11, and after plans for another restaurant fell through, he opened Mas in 2004.
Over the decades he’s been in the industry, Zamarra has watched New York restaurants evolve immensely. While he’s pleased with where sourcing is going, he says there’s more to be done. “I’m a big supporter of the Greenmarkets, but I wish there were more markets,” he says. “The farmers’ market in Santa Cruz blows any market here out the door. It has a bigger selection. I liked the New Amsterdam market, too, and that it’s no longer around is heartbreaking. I’d also like to see one indoors, so it’d be accessible year-round.” And he’d like to see better organization around small farms getting their products to restaurants. Currently, he says, it’s a lot of work — small farms can’t afford to deliver to individual restaurants; small restaurants can’t afford to pick up from individual farms. Especially because consumers aren’t really willing to pick up the tab for the extra cost.
Nor are diners willing to pick up the tab for the rising expense of doing business in this town, which Zamarra says has become significant in the recent past. “There are a lot of new regulations coming into play making restaurants expensive,” he says. “There’s health insurance, the minimum wage, and overtime. The cost in general goes up, up, up, up every year. It’s hard to keep up with. I hate increasing prices, but I didn’t know any other way to do it.”
That means, he says, that there are now great restaurants outside of New York, though he perceives that change as a good thing. New York remains central, though, he points out, because of the international audience for our local media, which has also gone through a major change. “In 2004, the internet wasn’t such a popular thing,” he says. “We didn’t even have a website — we were like, ‘Yeah, is that really a big deal for a restaurant?’ There wasn’t online social media, and media back then was a big deal. If you got a bad review from the Times, it could close your restaurant. That started to change when we opened. We didn’t get a good review, and we did fine. But now, there are so many reviews, it’s crazy. A bad review doesn’t spell disaster. It’s very, very different.”
So how should would-be chefs and restaurateurs approach the new landscape? “If I was a kid, I would go to culinary school in New York City and then work for free in a restaurant and just kill it,” he says. “That’s the other thing that changed here — most cooks are willing to work 50 or 60 hours a week, but I used to work a lot more than that. That’s when you really learn.”
And if he were diving in to restaurant ownership again? “Owning a business is its own animal,” he says. “I totally would have benefited [from] going to college and learning business. My business partner Eric [Blinderman] is taking classes at Columbia, because we need this. He went to college and is a lawyer. It’s hard to learn business in culinary school. A lot of restaurants fail because business is not a strong point — it’s hard to do both.”
Being able to operate a tight business, he says, is a major goal for Almanac, so that he can begin plotting future projects. “Operating one is one thing; operating multiple is a different sort of challenge,” he says. “I love cooking, and I love designing and building restaurants. It’s fun.”