The Costco Challenge
"I'll stop at nothing to get an ingredient I want, whether it's glass eels from Maine or barnacles from Chile," says Ken Oringer, the chef and co-owner of Boston's renowned Clio. So what would such a fanatical cook think of shopping for ingredients at his local Costco? His first reaction was awe. "I'd never been to a place like that," he says. "The sheer size was incredible."
An excursion to Costco, BJ's or Sam's Club is still an adventure, despite the ubiquity of these warehouse stores. For an annual membership fee (Costco's starts at $45 for one person), anyone has access to institutional-size products at cut-rate prices. It would take quite a while to get through 700 individual packets of artificial sweetener—but at $14, it's just part of the reason that so many consumers (40 million worldwide) have joined the club.
Costco was a culinary awakening for Oringer. Within minutes of entering the 117,000-square-foot Waltham, Massachusetts, store, the chef People magazine called one of America's most eligible bachelors was climbing 20-foot-high "storage stacks" as though they were giant jungle gyms, "to find out what else might be up there." His favorite part, he says, "was that right after you pass the tire section, there's a huge frozen-food section, filled with three-pound bags of Buffalo Chicken Nuggets, Honey Barbecue Wings, Popcorn Chicken Bites and Teriyaki Breast Filets. It reminded me of being at the weekend market in Bangkok and finding 'Beebok' sneakers next to live chickens and snakes."
He was also excited about the meat department, with its on-site butchers. "I couldn't believe the quality," he says. "There are well-marbled, deep-red cuts of beef, Frenched lamb racks from Australia, pork loins—just about every cut. I chose the beef brisket because it was the biggest and cheapest piece of meat—each one was about 5 pounds, at $2.39 a pound. We pay more than that at the restaurant, even with wholesale prices."
Oringer's cooking at Clio has a refinement that doesn't exactly jibe with the Costco more-is-more sensibility. His ragù of calamari, for instance, is a delicate tangle of squid in an ethereal carrot sauce laced with cardamom, cayenne, coriander and cinnamon. But he also has fun.
"I think people would be surprised by what inspires me," he says. "It could be wheat germ or Twinkies, or the waffle I ate for breakfast. I'll think about it for days. Of course, I'm not going to serve a frozen waffle with butter and maple syrup at the restaurant—but it might inspire a dessert that has the light fluff and crunch of a waffle, with creamy elements of the butter and the thick sweetness and color of the syrup."
He found plenty of inspiration at Costco. The slabs of thick-cut bacon on his extra-large flatbed cart would later flavor a creamy baked pasta. Neatly wrapped portions of pork chops, packed nine to a container, would take on an Asian accent when the chef removed the meat from the bone, drizzled it with a caramel sauce and topped it with a nest of finely shredded beef jerky from half-pound Costco bags. The beef would receive a traditional slow braise in amber beer, then get sliced and finished with mustard and rye-bread crumbs for a refined take on the corned-beef sandwich. (The leftover brisket would go to Clio, for a beef consommé with white truffles and pasta.)
In fact, Oringer found too many ingredients—so many that his biggest hurdle was figuring out what not to buy. "I decided to focus on at least some things that I could freeze or store if there were any leftovers," the chef says. "I like to have a stocked fridge, so that I can do ad-lib meals." With a freezer full of Costco leftovers, the ad-libbing could go on for months.
Annie B. Copps is the food editor at Boston Magazine and the host of Table Talk, a weekly radio program.