Last week, Vidalia chef de cuisine Hamilton Johnson received some of the first ramps of the season from West Virginia. The first thing he did was post a photo on Facebook with the caption “so gorgeous...1st of the year #rampcitybitch” to brag to all his chef friends.
“There’s a lot of pride in having it first,” Johnson says. “It’s kind of like a family competition.”
He’s serving the first batch of hyped-up garlicky greens in dumplings with lump crab butter, asparagus, and Virginia-grown peas.
“Now I’ve just got to win the soft-shell crab race and be the first in that area,” Johnson says. “I’ve got to talk to my fish guy this week.”
With spring comes an arms race among chefs all vying to be the first to have the latest local, seasonal ingredients on their menus. As the restaurant scene has boomed, so has the demand for whatever is foraged and farmed nearby. But the availability of these products isn’t expanding at the same fast clip. The result is a battle for first dibs on an often limited supply of seasonal specialties.
“I want the first thing of everything. Everybody wants the first thing of everything,” says Mintwood Place chef Cedric Maupillier. “You want the new toy. You want the new produce. You want the new meat.”
Unlike Johnson, if he gets a good deal on ramps or a farmer gives him the first flat of strawberries as a gift, Maupillier might not necessarily want to broadcast it. “Others might ask him, then he might stop, and I might not get the privilege of being No. 1 on his list,” he says.
The cachet of getting something before everyone else isn’t always the driving force behind the competition. Chefs are often just sick of the “drab color palette of winter,” says The Partisan chef Ed Witt, and can’t move on to the bounty of spring fast enough. “After the winter, especially this one that wouldn’t stop, everyone wants something to change,” he says. The Partisan also already has ramps (from the West Coast) as well as non-local morels and fava beans.
Some ingredients aren’t always worth having first, because the quality is not yet at its prime. Even the ramps, Witt admits, are smaller and don’t have as much green on them at this early stage.
Still, it’s not just chefs who nerd out about the first pea tendrils or fiddlehead ferns. Increasingly, diners do, too, especially now that food blogs broadcast the first sighting of ramps and publish round-ups of where to find the first shad roe. “As soon as the first ramp pops out of the ground, somebody’s got it and they’re taking photos and sending it around,” says chef and restaurateur Bryan Voltaggio, who owns and operates Volt, Range, Family Meal, and others. “So the expectations and the pressures of the chef to make sure you incorporate these into the menu have become greater.”
As a result, chefs need to start inquiring about their ingredients early if they want the first shot at them. Chef Austin Fausett of Clifton, Va.-based Trummer’s on Main says he starts writing his Easter menu and feeling out farmers as early as January.
But being the first isn’t cheap. “You have to pay to play in that game,” Fausett says. Sought-after local and seasonal products tend to cost the most at the very onset of the season when demand is great and supply is not. The first morels of the year will go for $40 to $45 a pound, but they’ll drop to $23 or $24 mid-season. Ramps start out around $18 to $20 a pound then fall to $10 to $12. Likewise, soft-shell crabs, which can cost as much as $85 a dozen, are twice the price they will be two to three months later.
Some chefs account for this price spike by charging slightly more at the beginning of the season or calculating the average cost for the entire season and adjusting menu prices accordingly. Or they might eat the cost upfront. “Some restaurants will lose a little bit of money just to be able to attract the first client looking for crab,” Maupillier says.
Who gets a prized menu ingredient first is not always a matter of who spends the most money or who put in the earliest request, although those are certainly factors. Ultimately, what kind of personal relationship a chef has with his or her purveyor could be the difference between getting the first sour cherries of the season or not getting them at all.
For local seafood distributor Profish, it’s first-come, first-served—to a certain extent. Bigger and more loyal customers might get priority, but a less quantifiable factor also comes into play: “You want to reward people who are promoting local seafood,” says Profish Sustainable Director John Rorapaugh.
When local soft-shell crabs become available, Voltaggio will be among the first to get a call from Profish. Sure, he has a lot of restaurants (nine), but a lot of people have a lot of restaurants, Rorapaugh says. The reason he gets first pick? “His focus is true. I know being in this business and living it who really cares about the ingredients, and those are the guys you really want to surround yourself with as a company,” Rorapaugh says. “It’s more than just buying and selling seafood. You’ve got to embrace a message and relationships.”
Voltaggio and other chefs who are serious about having their pick of ingredients will take the time to visit their producers at the farmers market or at their farms. In the case of Profish, Voltaggio is donating his time to cook at their upcoming charity dinner. “It’s relationship building,” the chef says. “The more that you work with somebody and get to know them, the more access that you have.”
Black Rock Orchard farmer Emily Zaas, who sells her Carroll County, Md.-grown fruits to restaurants and at the local farmers markets, says reliability—paying for and picking up orders on time—goes a long way. “I had one chef that ordered [sour cherries] and he didn’t pick them up. Well, that was just terrible for us, because we can’t sell them then. We can take them home, but they’re no good anymore,” she says.
That’s why Zaas loves Zaytinya chef Michael Costa. If he knows Zaas has sour cherries, he’ll make sure someone is at the farmers market as soon as they open and carefully transport them back to the restaurant.
Zaas cares enormously about the respect chefs show for her produce, and she pays close attention to just how they physically handle it. In their search for the nicest fruit, some chefs will end up groping and roughly turning over the goods. “The chefs that I do business with regularly are very respectful of the fruit and they let me pick it out for them or they pick it out very carefully,” she says.
Some chefs only call Zaas if there are certain ingredients they want. Others buy from her every week. And even if she doesn’t have what they want, they will order something else because they care about keeping her in business. Those are the people who Zaas will give first dibs on rare and prized items like Champagne-colored currants or gooseberries.
The fact is, there’s simply not enough of some products to go around. Last year, Zaas says half the chefs who wanted sour cherries couldn’t get them because her harvest was so small. For pawpaws, a new crop for Black Rock Orchard, only 10 percent of her network of chefs got them. And for figs, it was even fewer.
Demand for Maryland crab also far outweighs the supply: The Maryland crab industry produces about 700,000 pounds of crab meat a year, while more than 43 million pounds of crab meat are imported each year.
Naturally, chefs must strategize. Last summer, a forager brought Fausett of Trummer’s on Main wild chanterelles from Fairfax County. “He said, ‘I have 20 pounds. Here’s 10.’ And I said, ‘What are you doing with the other 10 pounds?’ He said, ‘I’m going to another restaurant.’ I said, ’No, no, no. You come here. I’ll buy them all, and next year when you get these wild chanterelles again, I want you to come here.’”
That’s not to say competition is always cut-throat. If a farmer or forager has more than Fausett would reasonably want to buy, he will send them to fellow chefs he respects. He ultimately wants to keep the farmer in business, so he or she will be back the next year.
It’s not quite as easy when you’re the new guy. The Fainting Goat chef Nathan Beauchamp returned to D.C. last summer after spending six years working on an organic farm in Minnesota. Even though he was once the executive chef at 1789 and has a farming background, he found it challenging to get all of the ingredients he wanted. Last fall, for example, Beauchamp tried to order some fresh heirloom beans, but the farmer had already sold them elsewhere. “It’s very competitive and when you fall off the radar like I have, you’re not getting the first phone calls saying, ‘We’ve got this and I’m going to give it to you.’”
Beauchamp is now trying to rebuild relationships with farmers and start new ones. To that end, chefs and farmers both cite the importance of good old-fashioned kindness as prerequisite for who gets the goods. One of Oyamel’s chefs brings Black Rock Orchard’s Zaas tamales made by his wife. “If they fail to pick up something… then they know that I’ll keep their stuff, but they might have to bring us tacos or something,” Zaas says. “They know that it’s hard for us.”
Chef Maupillier will invite his farmers and their families to dinner at Mintwood Place. He also treats them almost like cousins: “When it’s Thanksgiving, send them a note. When it’s New Years, send them a note and say, ‘Thank you.’”
Voltaggio likewise will invite farmers for dinner. But even more important, he says, is getting excited when the mushroom guy shows up at his back door or showing appreciation and respect for the hours the farmer spent harvesting the kale.
“Those relationships are the No. 1 factor as to why I can grab an ingredient when I want to and need to,” Voltaggio says. “It’s not about the volume. It’s not about what you buy. It’s not about any of those things. If somebody genuinely likes you and appreciates what you do with their product that they worked so hard to get to you, then I think that means more than anything.”
Photo of Vidalia's ramp dumplings by Darrow Montgomery