On the far side of the kitchen at Mas (la grillade) are the anchors of Chef Galen Zamarra's seasonal, decidedly unfussy menu: two massive custom wood-fire grills, and one deep pit, totaling about 4000 hulking pounds of cooking power. Custom-ordered from J&R Manufacturing, and part of a wood-fire grill sprawl that reaches all the way to Bed-Stuy, the grills act as both functional and spiritual cornerstone of Zamarra's second restaurant, where cooking is polished rustic, and fire and intuition are just about the most important tools a chef can have.
"What we're doing at Mas (la grillade) is the antithesis of molecular gastronomy," says Zamarra. Pudding proof? His recipe for turkey. Yes, the great turkey holocaust known as Thanksgiving is officially over. But in our holiday cravings and strivings we came across Zamarra's golden bird—a rich, flavorful, sublimely low-fi production—and saw the glorious caveman future of protein in American cuisine.
The name of the game is smoke-roasting, a hybridization of smoking and grill-roasting that—as all sublime cooking—depends entirely on the integrity of just a few things: meat, fire, and patience. The only difference is when you're smoke-roasting, just about as much loving care goes into the fire as it does the bird. Zamarra gave his pre-brined local turkey a loving duck-fat baste (rendering all non-duck fatted turkeys obsolete for us), and placed it on the grill—about a foot above the heat source—for a two-and-a-half-hour nap in an aluminum foil tent. But even with the turkey tucked in, it was the fire that got the most TLC.
Or should we say fires. The key to good smoke-roasting is twofold: a secure tent to go over the protein once it's been placed on the grill, and a hot fire—which typically has to be maintained with coals from another, steadily burning fire. "You can't just throw a log on there," Zamarra told us as he gingerly scooped up a heap of glowing charred wood from his second grill. "It'll flare up. You always have to have an alternate fire working." Dosing his grill with hot wood coals (he uses oak, apple, and cherry), Zamarra kept the grill at a constant temperature of around 400°F, which he judged by placing his hand near enough to the heat source and engaging that second-nature relationship with meat and heat.
The results testify. The turkey comes out with a permeating but delicate smoke flavor, and more moisture than the traditional smoked bird thanks to duck fat and the close aluminum tenting. But perhaps what's most satisfying, especially in the short, dark days of fall and winter, is that ghost of fire that accompanies any just-grilled protein. Let's call it the caveman je ne sais quoi. "It's animalistic," says Zamarra. "Meat by a fire." His diners might enjoy it in the sky-lit dining room two floors above, with birch tea candle holders and festive hunter green pillows. But what they taste indicates that somewhere down below, in the belly of a kitchen, a fire is burning hot and strong, and a chef is standing nearby.
Brined, Trussed Turkey
Zamarra places the bird over a foot above the heat source.jpg
Basting the turkey with rendered duck fat
Tenting the bird with aluminum foil
Tenting the bird with aluminum foil
Zamarra feeds the fire with hot wood from another fireg
The finished product
1. Brine the turkey in a mixture of water, salt, sugar, herbs, and spices for 24 hours
2. Build a fire with wood or charcoal, allowing it to burn down to hot coals. Spread these coals on the outside of the grill. (If using gas, use the outside gas lines only.)
3. Pat the turkey dry, season, and truss. Brush the bird all over with rendered duck fat.
4. Place the bird (backside-down) in the center of the grill, approximately 1 foot from the charcoal and away from direct flame.
5. Tent the turkey in aluminum foil, taping the outside to secure.
6. Grill for 2½ hours, basting every 15 minutes.
7. Add fuel to keep the heat constantly around 400°F inside the grill. (If using charcoal or gas, add soaked wood chips to create smoke.)
8. Cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 150°F and let rest for 25 minutes.