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Q&A: Chef Galen Zamarra on cooking by “micro-season” at Almanac

Acorn squash at Almanac (Photo: Almanac)
Acorn squash at Almanac (Photo: Almanac)

Lots of people keep journals filled with their personal thoughts and musings. Chef Galen Zamarra’s is filled with vegetables.

Zamarra, the renowned chef behind beloved New York City restaurant Mas (Farmhouse), recently closed sister restaurant Mas (La grillade) and in its place just opened Almanac—a restaurant concept based on journals he keeps of what’s in season at farmers markets.

And it’s a practice he started long ago, while working at Bouley. “Something would come into season, and by the time I would work out a dish for it that I was really happy with, the season would be over,” he says. “I started to keep journals of when things were in season or when things went out of season. Both are equally important.”

The careful notes allow him to cook by “micro-seasons” at the new restaurant, where dishes are created around one super-fresh star ingredient, like acorn squash, served with lamb bacon and cilantro pesto, smoke blue cheese, and takana (mustard) greens.

We stopped by the space (which got a total makeover and now has a warm feel and a bar scene) to chat with him about the concept and how it really plays out in the kitchen and on the menu.

Wood and warm colors abound, and a cozy bar sits in place of the ventilation duct that used to be necessary for the wood-fired grills. (Photo: Almanac)

Farmers market journals helped you when you were coming up with dishes as a less experienced chef. But do you need them at this point, when you have so much knowledge? We still do it, I do it, and my sous chefs all do it. I’m always thinking about “What I can do now? What kind of dishes do I want to work on in December?” I’ll leaf through the journals, and I can kind of plan ahead and be ready for it. The idea is clementines are going to be ready around Christmas time, so what are we going to do with them? We’ll create something, and it’s going to be available right at the peak of the season.

And how does focusing on the more drilled-down seasonality or “micro-season,” as opposed to just whether something is in season in summer or fall, affect the dishes? There’s a real season and a perceived season, and I say “Let’s focus on it when it’s really in season.” For example, we have a dish with acorn squash. Obviously you’re going to be able to get acorn squash for the next six months. But right now when they’re just harvesting it, the skin is really nice and tender, so I like to eat the skin, it really showcases the identity and flavor. But in March, it’s been sitting in a cellar and the skin gets dried out. So when I have it that late in the year, I’ll want to do something different with it.

Brainpower-boosting oysters play a big role on the menu. (Photo: Almanac)

What about the one-ingredient focus? It doesn’t mean there’s only one ingredient, it means one ingredient is going to inspire a dish.

It sounds like all of this would make your job really difficult. We have to work a lot harder and sometimes you have to be on your toes. Before we opened, for example, the kitchen was pretty much done, and we had this opportunity to really work on recipes before the dining room construction was finished. I had this dish—it involved sea scallops and they had these big roe sacks with them, so the sauce had the roe sacks in it. I was excited to open up with it on the menu, and as soon as we opened, the scallops didn’t have the sacks anymore, so we had to take it off. It’s kind of unexpected, but you have to go with nature. Year-to-year, things are wildly different. You have to be ready to make a change that day. —Lisa Elaine Held

Almanac, 28 Seventh Ave. South, between St. Luke’s Pl. and Morton St., West Village,