Interview with Chef Galen Zamarra of Mas (Farmhouse) – New York, NY

September 20

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef
Galen Zamarra: I certainly cooked a lot when I was younger, but so did my brothers and sisters, and none of them are chefs. I guess it was something I enjoyed doing, so I went to a local culinary school in Santa Cruz, California.

AT: How did you enjoy your experience at CIA? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
GZ: There were certain parts that I really enjoyed, but on the whole I didn’t enjoy the experience. I would have dropped out if my mom hadn’t made me stay. You spend a lot of time and money there and do very little cooking. I would tell other cooks to go work in good restaurants for free and read up wherever they can. Culinary school gives you a recipe and either you can make the dish or not. But that is something you can do at home, so save the money. You can learn basics at a restaurant if you ask the right questions.

AT: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
GZ: I did my CIA internship at Bouley, which was a wonderful experience. I learned so much from David Bouley; he is definitely my mentor. So much of my style and theory come directly from him. I was only nineteen when I worked there, and I liked his philosophy on flavors. I was also inspired by Michel Bras and Alain Passard.

AT: How did you arrange your stages abroad?
GZ: Bouley’s old restaurant had closed and he was gracious enough to set up stages for a lot of his cooks in France. He set one up for me with Michel Bras and George Blanc. I instantly loved Michel Bras, but I was only there for a month. I worked very hard, but the atmosphere was so calm and the food was ridiculously amazing. It was very different, very fun. I got my stage at Arpege with Alain Passard (in Paris) because a friend of mine was working there. I went in to stage just for the day, but I ended up working there for a year! You can always go over unpaid and volunteer your time, but for me, it was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life. When I got there my French was really bad and it limited the work I could do. As it improved I was able to work in pastry, as garde manger, and as entremetier on the line. I could do more and I learned a lot of intense cooking techniques.

AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining at Mas?
GZ: Everything starts with the basic quality of the ingredients. I try to do as little as possible with the ingredients and make them come together harmoniously in your mouth.

AT: Are there any secret ingredients /flavor combinations that you especially like? Why?
GZ: I tend to use citrus zest in a ton of things. It may seem unnoticeable, but to me, it can enliven the palate in a very subtle way. We do a lot with juices as well.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
GZ: Something I like to use a lot is my Champion vegetable juicer. And if you took away my Vitamix or Robotcoupe, I’d be helpless. We use juice in a lot of ways: vegetable juice is the best way to extract flavor from a vegetable in a liquid form, better than a vegetable stock which alters the levels of sweetness. When you use a juicer, you retain the inherent properties of the vegetable. I use the juice for sauce, vinaigrette, soup, ice-cream, tons of things!

AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
GZ: The Tuna l’Occidentale dish comes out of my time spent in Japan cooking at the Suji cooking school. It comes from a Japanese style of preparing sushi but I’ve adapted it to fit my needs and my flavors. The way we do the sauce is to hit the fish with some very hot brown butter, but leaving it raw.

AT: What’s your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
GZ: I like to ask them what their goals are. Not everyone wants to be a superstar chef. Some want to write cookbooks, run catering companies. It’s interesting for me to see which area they lean towards. It determines how they are going to perform. Of all my cooks, I think only one is going to be a chef in the next 10 years. And whatever it is they want, hopefully we can work together towards that goal. I’m so proud of former employees for going on and fulfilling their dreams, whatever they may be. A person who doesn’t have any goals, I wonder, why are you here?

AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
GZ: I’d stress how much you actually have to cook, and how important that is. Also, I encourage them to get cookbooks, read them, cook at home on your time off – really bust your butt. I know people who’ve worked in 4-star restaurants for 10 years and they know how to heat up vegetables and then they know how to cook a fish, but they don’t know how to fillet it! It’s really important that people cook a lot, and volunteer.

AT: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in New York City?
GZ: I love Homara Ahn – it’s a soba shop on Mercer and Houston. It’s one of my favorites; so elegant and totally classy, but the food is outrageous and innovative. I also love 360 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard.

AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
GZ: One thing I’m noticing is people’s willingness to pay more for good food. People thought that Per Se and Masa would never make it because they are expensive, but they’re all doing well. They don’t realize how expensive it is to cook good food in a restaurant. I mean, Mas is not cheap, but we’re just scraping by. I wish I could charge more. I wish I could afford to give my cooks insurance.

AT: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
GZ: As much as I really love Mas, it’s also really small for me, especially the kitchen. I miss the equipment and size kitchen staff I used to have. Do I want to be a chef who’s always cooking at a place, or be more of a restaurateur? I’d like to put on more events, and do more projects with Slow Food. And I’m really interested in sustainability, getting restaurants back to nature, and supporting local farmers.