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Meet the chef: Galen Zamarra

The fragrance of wood smoke pops up in unexpected places at Mas (la grillade), a New York City restaurant that showcases locally grown, sustainably raised food cooked over a wood grill.

“Almost everything here is cooked by a wood fire,” says chef-owner Galen Zamarra, who is known to give oysters, scallops, duck, spinach, chocolate and even hollandaise sauce a spin on the grates.  “We don’t have sauté pans. I have a couple of induction burners that I use to heat sauces and a convection oven for pastry. But in some way, shape or form, everything else comes from the wood fire.”

Zamarra shows his deft hand at the grill with his Charred Tomato with Arugula Pesto and Stracciatella. A partly grilled tomato half stars in this simple and summery appetizer, smoke-tinged on the grilled side and fresh and juicy on the raw side, served over greens with zesty arugula and spinach pesto and creamy stracciatella cheese.

What is your philosophy of smoking food?
I don’t have a smoker. I have various ways to use [the grill] as a smoker. I don’t want the food to be in-your-face barbecue. The smoke should be subtle, rather than overwhelming, an accenting flavor that makes things more interesting.

How do customers like the smoke-intensive menu?

People really love it. The wonderful thing about smoke is that it enhances the natural flavor of food. It has a different flavor to it, not umami, but a different flavor that reaches the Neanderthal that is still in all of us. To have it in meat is obvious and makes sense, but to have it in something like spinach or tomato is unexpected and exciting.

How do you grill delicate items?
I put delicate greens, like spinach, into metal bowls with very small holes. That allows heat and smoke to come through and keeps the greens from falling between the grates as they cook. You can also use a small metal rack. You are not looking for char or crispness, rather you want the greens to wilt and absorb a smoky flavor from the wood fire.

What types of wood do you prefer for smoking?

In general, I use a blend of oak, apple, cherry and maple because of availability and cost. Oak and apple are really great. I love the smell. They put out a lot of BTUs. And their coals are long lasting. But they are super expensive. Cherry and maple are other local hardwoods that are more accessible and affordable and also burn well with a pleasant aroma. 

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