It’s only about two hours from Midtown Manhattan, but the Hudson Valley couldn’t feel more different from its urban neighbor to the south. It’s all farms and green fields and people who truly, deeply care where there food comes from. One such dude is Wilson Costa, executive chef of Gigi Hudson Valley, a Brazilian-born chef who left behind his career cooking in French kitchens in the big city after 9/11 and never went back (except for occasional forays to the Fulton Fish Market).
This Saturday, he’ll join some of the up-and-coming region’s best chefs at the annual and booming Ramp Fest, at the super-cool Basilica in Hudson, New York (right across from a train station, just two hours from Grand Central). I attended Ramp Fest last year, ate ramp pizza and ramp ice cream and ramp lamb chops, and I can attest to this fest’s awesomeness. My colleagues in NYC like to poke fun at the fervor about this early-spring favorite, but ramps are pretty versatile, and Ramp Fest itself is turning into a big to-do. Highlight this year will include a coming out for Zakary Pelaccio’s new Fish & Game and stray Brooklynites like the guys from Speedy Romeo and Park Slope’s Applewood. Only 1,000 people will get in, and it will sell out early. You can get tickets here.
A few weeks back, I talked ramps, seasonal cooking and more with Costa at the great little farm market founded by Laura Penseiro, owner of Gigi Hudson Valley and Gigi Trattoria.
Spring is finally here. Do you get excited as a chef with such deep ties to local farms?
Now is go time. Right now it’s asparagus; ramps are probably the favorite.
I like ramps too, but they’re damned expensive!
I can get ‘em for 2 or 3 bucks a pound because I go through like 200-300 pounds of ramps.
What do you use them for?
Pasta, pesto, risotto. I pickle them for winter. Grill.
Have you foraged them?
I’ve tried, but I’ve had no luck.
What’s your game plan for spring, as far as rolling out what’s in season?
Ramps, big time. Soft-shell crabs, morels when the price comes down. Out back there’s wild cardoons — it’s like a bitter green. Nettles, fava beans, peas. This farmer that just called me, she’s from Locust, she’s doing this really awesome baby spinach. Lamb’s tongue.
You have been at Gigi for eight years, and the restaurant and market have devoted followings in the region. What’s the idea behind the restaurant?
A true farm to table [restaurant], using very minimal but high-end ingredients, dealing with a lot of local farms, 70 to 80 percent of which are local. Of course, some items like parmesan we have to import, but we try to get as close as possible.
Do the farmers you work with change often?
Some guys have stayed the same. Like Mr. [Irving] Mink is a backyard farm guy and he supplies probably all of our tomatoes in the season. I give him all that business for tomatoes.
Does he use greenhouses?
He starts in greenhouses, then moves to the farm.
What do you do for tomatoes in February?
We don’t do tomatoes. I do some imported roasted tomatoes. Picked prime, roasted, cured in olive oil. Or I buy a lot of tomatoes at the end of season and do a tomato jam. I get the tomatoes, stew it all up and can it or pickle it for the winter.
You’ve been at Gigi for eight years, way before the whole “farm to table” thing became a trend. What do you think of it?
There’s a lot of that concept but I don’t know if there’s a follow through.
Well it is a lot of work.
There’s a lot of adjustment.
What are some of the challenges?
Like [our meat supplier] from Meiller’s, he doesn’t deliver, so we have to go pick it up. Imagine picking up a 600-lb. half steer.
How are your customers—are they religious about seasonality, sourcing?
Yes. And if we can’t get the items we have to let the servers know, because we have diehard customers who come and say I want the Sky Farm greens, for instance.
People practically want to know the names of the chicken they’re ordering.
Chicken is the biggest — you can tell the difference.
It tastes better?
A lot better. It cuts a different way. The beef cuts totally different. Just putting a knife to it, the texture of a commodity beef compared to a local beef is completely different. You can see the difference in meat quality 10 feet away.
How did all this influence your cooking?
I started classically French. I trained under a Michelin-starred chef in Queens. We opened a few restaurants on Long Island, then Manhattan. It was super-heavy — like cream, butter, foie. Heavy food. Which was cool. At the beginning, it’s like, this is awesome, but then you take a step back and you’re like, You need how much cream to make this taste good? So I started stepping away from that…. I think it’s harder to cook this type of food than masking it with a lot of ingredients.
More on ramps from Food Republic: