How He Surreptitiously Built a Following for ‘Skunky’ Ramps
February 1999 — This is the time of year when the thoughts of Matt Costello, chef at The Palace Kitchen restaurant in Seattle, turn to the bounty of fresh produce from local farms. He won’t actually see any local farm-fresh greenery for months to come. A typically chilly winter still grips the Pacific Northwest. But that doesn’t stop Costello from thinking about the spring and summer harvests that will arrive later in the year – and sharing his thoughts with the farmers who will grow the food that he will start serving in a few months.
“A couple of years ago, when I first started using ramps, we called it a wild leek. In the second year we segued into calling it a ramp.”
The chefs have learned to flip right past the luscious pictures of heirloom tomatoes, as much as they’d like to have a local supply of them for their summer menus. “We talk about specialty items that really make a big difference when they’re grown here,” says Costello. “And on this side of the mountains in Washington, tomatoes never really turn out very good because it doesn’t ever get very hot. So we don’t really push for those. We’ve backed off that and moved to items that grow real well around here.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of choices of fruits and vegetables that thrive on the cool, moist coastal plain between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The farmers begin planting crops in March and April. By June, the harvest begins with fresh herbs, spring garlic, tender baby lettuce, fava beans, local asparagus, and ramps from Oregon. A little bit later come sweet shelling peas, exotic lettuce varieties, sauteing greens, and delicious wild strawberries, to name just a few of Costello’s favorites of early summer.
Costello said this is the third year he has held winter meetings with farmers. As a result of the exchange of ideas, a number of items that used to be hard to find are now readily available from local farmers, including scarlet runner beans, cranberry beans and other exotic varieties of shell beans, cardoons and ramps.
Smells Like a Ramp
Customers, who may have never heard of some of these items several years ago now welcome their return to the menu each summer. Ramps, for example. A type of wild leek, ramps “smell almost skunky but have really mild flavor,” says Costello. Most of the farmers who bring them in never had to plant them. They forage from wild patches on their farms which grow back year after year.
It took a deft bit of salesmanship to convince restaurant patrons of the virtues of the unusual crop. “A couple of years ago, when I first started using ramps, we called it a wild leek. In the second year we segued into calling it a ramp,” says Costello, who grills them, pickles them and uses sauted ramps as a vegetable bed for meat.
The Palace Kitchen, which opened in March of 1996, is the newest addition to Tom Douglas’s trio of restaurants. Dahlia Lounge and Etta’s Seafood are also owned by Douglas, who won the James Beard Association Award for Best Northwest Chef in 1994. With three restaurants pooling their purchase orders, they are able to buy enough of any one item to make it worth the farmers’ while to devote time and space to the crop.
Costello considers the local-farm connection an important part of the dining experience for his customers. “On my menu, almost every single item is identified by which farm it is from. Our customers are very receptive to that. It draws them more into the meal. It helps present a story about the food — who the farmer is, where the farm is located. Waiters often come back to the kitchen with a lot of questions. When was this picked? What part of the valley was it grown in?
“That’s what I wanted to bring more into our restaurant group. The fact that agriculture is what brings food to our plate has been a little bit lost in our culture,” says Costello.
The Palace Kitchen’s patrons “are very willing to pay extra money for food that is organic and local,” adds Costello, “and I am too.”