Mas is a Little Farmhouse in the Big City

Appropriately for a restaurant with a name that’s French for farmhouse, there are animals in the kitchen at Mas, the five-year-old West Village restaurant that’s beloved both by young locavores who’ve raided the piggy bank and monied fine diners who’ve never heard of heritage pork. Beyond the usual princely proteins like yellowfin tuna (flash-seared in beurre noisette) and whole roasted squab (sourced from a Hudson Valley farm), there’s Wade, the little brown dog; a grey horse called GTO; and a white rhinoceros named Buster.

Each is a tiny figurine with an important perch next to chef Galen Zamarra’s teeny workspace in this tiny kitchen. Every night, Zamarra–fortunately he’s somewhat compact, too–makes sure this toy trio is set beside his station, sitting shotgun for the dinner service ride. They’re less than a crooked arm’s length from him all night… but then again, so is most of his staff. Because if the dining room at Mas is defined by its spare, slightly Scandi, modern farmhouse style–firehouse-red chairs, sky-blue water pitchers, stone walls, wide-planked wood floors and woodsy scenes embroidered on throw pillows–the kitchen space is defined by its cluttery cubbyholeness and pint-size proportions.

“I hate my kitchen with a passion,” says Zamarra, and he’s not kidding, though the chef’s cherubic cheeks are wide with a smile, as usual, as he says so. He might have been spoiled early on by the vast, well-staffed French restaurants where he trained–a slew of Michelin three-star spots in France; a stint as chef de cuisine at Tribeca’s since-shuttered Bouley Bakery, where he scored the 2001 James Beard Rising Star chef award–but when he came aboard at Mas after the initial concept failed to even get off the ground (something with reindeer heads, a lower price point and comfort food, he jokes) there was no money for kitchen renovations.

Five years and many rapturous reviews later, his crew still works in a space roughly the size of a borough bedroom, albeit one stuffed with six cooks, a French Culinary Institute intern, a pastry chef, a dishwasher, two stoves, plenty of banged-up pots and pans and plastic tubs of bacon cream, freshly hulled favas, pickled cherries, blanched garlic, pristinely plucked greens and orange-spiked mayonnaise (citrus and its zest being among Zamarra’s favorite touches). The ceiling is low, the pipes are exposed, one cook must work from the side of a stove and the door to the basement below– a big, brutally sharp-cornered metal trap door–takes up what’s left of the floor.

So Zamarra’s little animals, the kitchen joke goes, help maintain order. “There’d be no ebb and flow to the kitchen,” says cook Gary Tackett one night as he sets out Buster, GTO and Wade, “without them.”

Of course it’s really the chef, rather than his mini-menagerie, who’s responsible for that ebb, which is just as serene as the dining room: Despite the close quarters, his is a happy, quiet crew. And Zamarra runs the show from a little workspace he’s carved out on the top of a refrigerator unit at the center of the kitchen.

By day they use the space to prep sauces, pluck the meat from braised pig heads or break down the animals they bring in whole or nearly so from local farms (“except for beef,” says Zamarra. “There isn’t enough counter space”). But each night, just before service, he sets out a folded, fresh white tablecloth, tapes it down, weights one side with a wood beam left from the dining room construction, and sets out those guardian farmhouse figurines.

Under their gaze Zamarra plates nearly every dish. Rarely straying from his neat white space–not that he has much room to, anyway–he receives paper-thin slices of tuna, or roasted squab or lamb chops, or pickled beets, or housemade gnocchi, one by one from his cooks, their movements like those of a surgeon and his team. In between, servers show him cleared plates (was anything left?), or gather to listen as he calls out the dishes he custom-creates for the six-course $95 chef’s tasting menu (which can be paired, by the way, with the restaurant’s biodynamic, organic wines, kept in a beautiful glassed room that separates the tiny front bar from the rest of the 50-seat dining room).

These dishes are mostly French in inspiration: carefully composed plates of individual ingredients, expertly braised, brined, marinated or seared, then tweaked with something extra-unctous. A slab of spinach-wrapped lamb paired with eggplant moussaka and tomato harissa. A handful of tubby sautéed mushrooms submerged in garlicky, creamy soup, delicately topped with a few fat, crispy, butter-seared scallops and tiny, spicy microgreens. A fat claw of poached lobster meat, surrounded by a froth of its own orange bisque cut with a few shreds of brilliant emerald greens. A salad of organic wheat berries whose flavors Zamarra slowly labored over, spiking it first with pink grapefruit juice, then two kinds of citrus zest, a sharp and spicy green olive oil and some tart-sweet pickles preserved in an early session of putting-by.

Those riffs join the lineup of such dishes as house-smoked Artic char served with American paddlefish caviar, crisped beets and a tangle of the lightly dressed, triangular little wild greens chefs called claytonia and gardeners call miner’s lettuce; the ultra-thin slices of raw yellowfin doused with sizzling hot browned butter sauce and topped with a few wispy fried shallots. There are hand-made ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, lemon and parsley, then served with the bright orange of baby carrots and the brilliant green purée of English peas; and Flying Pigs Farm pork belly–or shoulder or cheeks, depending on the day of the week–paired with pile of red-wined onions and a buttery purée of earthy fingerlings.

Each of these dishes is tweaked–if not totally composed from scratch–by Zamarra at his white-tableclothed station before they head to the dining room. Still, even as this chef so attentively controls his kitchen, it as surely controls him: Despite its careful composition, its breathtaking elegance, the food here remains ingredient-driven and simpler–to a top chef, that is–than Zamarra would always like it to be. But he can’t make much more complex food, he says, without more space or more staff.

Utterly committed to the natural world–he often snips the restaurant’s flower arrangements from his backyard, or takes the time to go on a two-day van trip upstate to go canoeing with his farmers–Zamarra can trace his seasonal-sustainable zeal to his traditional French training, the kind that stipulates the freshest possible incarnation of every ingredient that enters your kitchen. He cites his years under David Bouley, who sought out local ingredients decades before it was fashionable. But he also credits his California background: “I’m from Santa Cruz,” he says. “That’s what it was all about. We’re all hippies out there.”

Even so, he admits his purchasing plan has grown beyond the quest for delicious into more of a personal passion to finance the farmers he buys from. “That part I really didn’t see coming,” he says of his underlying desire to get them to financial solvency: “These people really need help.”

His customers in the dining room don’t necessarily realize that as they spoon the last of the lobster bisque foam from their plates. Sure, many are glad the pig on whose belly they’ve supped had a wonderful life in local pastures, but plenty of others, driven not by pleasure–hold the politics–declare the thick, unhomogenized Battenkill County cream in their coffee to be curdled, says Zamarra–it gets sent back “every single day.”

Zamarra doesn’t preach: His style is to quietly source the way he believes he should and serve exquisite food sans sermon. But bit by carefully cooked, artfully composed and utterly enjoyed bit, he’s helping the local food system grow. Too bad you can’t say the same thing about his tiny kitchen.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell