What’s So Great About Ramps Anyway?

Ramps, or wild onions, are the “it” spring ingredient for East Coast chefs, but some L.A. chefs want to join the party

If you’ve skimmed an East Coast food blog in the last month, you’ve probably read about ramps–the lanky wild onions that signal to our New Yorker brethren that spring is nigh. For three short weeks, ramp puns abound, ramp haters go on their annual rampage, and Eater NY regurgitates their “OMG Ramps” headline.

I’ve often wondered what the big deal is about ramps. In California, you can happen upon an obscure citrus variety every week. We don’t just have strawberries, we have Gaviotas and Seascapes and Mara des Bois (which taste like what strawberry Jolly Ranchers want to taste like). We have 18 types of mint and almost as many avocados.

What we don’t have is ramps.

“It’s too much work for too little pay,” says David West. These days, the owner of Clearwater Farms focuses on bring foraged crowd-pleasers like morels and porcinis to his L.A. customers. “There are wild leeks, wild onions, and things called ramps, but the very best ramps come from West Virginia.”

Some in California have attempted to cultivate ramps, but success is limited. “It’s about as successful as cultivating chanterelles,” Barbara Spencer tells me. She and her husband Bill saw the demand for ramps and looked into growing them on their Paso Robles farm, but the challenges didn’t seem worth it. “Some things are so truly about terroir,” she says. “There is no substitute.”

Spencer did find a close second in her baby green garlic, which sprouts in late March and early April. At L&E Oyster Bar, Spencer Bezaire began using the thin, tender stalks in place of ramps and declared them “Cali-Ramps.”

But other L.A. chefs, even some of the most ardent locavores, can’t stay away from the real deal. At Love & Salt, chef Michael Fiorelli serves oven-roasted California baby artichokes alongside grilled Michigan ramps. “Ramps are almost like my version of a white truffle,” he says, “something you want to work with even when you can’t get it locally because they are special.”

According to chef Bruce Kalman, “They’re like the freshest, sweetest onion, but with a bit of acid.” At Union in Pasadena, he pairs Oregon ramps with crispy duck confit, morels, and pickled cherries. “Despite the fact that ramps are not grown locally, for me it is important to utilize ingredients as they are in season, especially ones with very short seasons.”

As national demand for ramps continues to grow, so does the fear that we are loving ramps to death. “I have great concerns over the over-harvesting of the Eastern ramps,” Barbara Spencer says, “so we loved that chefs were willing to use our product as a replacement for an endangered foraged crop.”