Couple Remakes a Condiment
Matt and Kori Wallace’s courtship is the stuff of preppy fantasies. The two, both 30, met on a coed soccer league in the District of Columbia in 2008, bonded over their shared Virginia roots and got married last year in Charlottesville.
Matt is a consultant at an alternative-energy firm, and Kori is a marketing contractor with dreams of a more creative career. But there’s a twist: They are stirring up a condiment revolution by way of ’Chups, their line of fruit ketchups they hope will one day be viable enough to compete with Heinz.
Considering that more than 650 million bottles of Heinz ketchup are sold annually, David probably had a better chance of defeating Goliath with a handful of Tater Tots. “It’s daunting, but we’re so small that we can’t go anywhere but up,” Matt tells me after changing out of his khakis and baby blue buttoned-down into shorts and a T-shirt. It’s a weeknight, and he has come straight from the office to get cooking at Union Kitchen, the culinary incubator in D.C. where he and Kori prepare ’Chups.
“We’d like to be another staple on the picnic table,” Kori adds as she dices a white onion. “When people roll out the Heinz, we’re right next to it.”
The idea for ’Chups first came to Matt, a self-taught cook, in June 2012. After making a recipe he found online for cherry ketchup to complement some home-cooked turkey burgers, he realized the versatility and novelty of the topping. While doing a lot of research (“I know more about ketchup than anyone would ever hope to learn,” he says), he discovered that a tomato-free formula wasn’t so novel, after all.
America’s modern-day version of ketchup is a far cry from its supposed origin as kechap, a Southeast Asian sauce made of fish entrails and soybeans that dates to the 17th century. The first recipe for ketchup in the English language was documented in a cookbook published in London in 1727. It called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar and spices, but nary a tomato.
When the Colonies adapted the condiment, it was most commonly made with walnuts, mushrooms or whatever fruit was plentiful, which might have included tomatoes. It wasn’t until the 1850s, when the tomato crop was queen of the American produce market, that ketchup became synonymous with the pulpy red fruit.
“Tomatoes are a prolific plant,” says Andrew F. Smith, the New York-based author of Pure Ketchup: The History of America’s National Condiment. “You can only sell so many, so what do you do with the rest? You can plow them back under, or you can figure out something to do with them. And the obvious answer was to make ketchup.”
What if a different fruit had been as prolific? “H.J. Heinz was the Google of his day,” says Matt. “He employed a lot of people and revolutionized international shipping.”
Kori adds, “If he’d said, ‘I’m going to go with cherries,’ then cherry ketchup would probably be the thing today.”
Matt and Kori spent a year testing recipes (all vegan and gluten-free) and gave away samples to friends and relatives. In January, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising $12,000. When it ended, more than 490 backers had donated $22,160.
The Wallaces offer five varieties of the condiment: blueberry, mango, peach, plum and cranberry. “The ingredients by themselves don’t sound like they’d work, but the cooking process breaks everything down, and it stews together,” Matt says. They eschew high-fructose corn syrup for agave nectar and sugars that occur naturally in fruit. What results is an adaptable, piquant paste that works as a marinade, dipping sauce or salad dressing base.
The condiment has also grabbed the attention of a rather influential force in the Washington, D.C., food scene: chef Jose Andres. Matt and Kori met him last year when they happened to be at the same holiday party.
“It was fate,” Kori says. “When we first started researching for ’Chups, we came across the flavored ketchups he did at his America Eats pop-up,” referring to Andres’ temporary restaurant serving classic American fare that opened in 2011 to coincide with a culinary exhibit at the National Archives. “We had to talk to him. We just had to.”
They introduced themselves and told Andres about their products. Andres told Matt and Kori they had three chances to tell him the correct reason why they wanted to make fruit ketchups.
Matt, a few Scotches deep, said, “To diversify the ketchup market.”
“To get more people using ketchup.”
Then Kori said something to the effect of honoring fruit ketchup’s roots in the American culinary tradition. Balloons and confetti might as well have dropped from the ceiling.
The next day, Andres’ assistant emailed the couple, requesting a tasting for Andres. When Matt and Kori arrived, the three of them geeked out over old American cookbooks that contained classic non-tomato ketchup recipes.
Andres gave ’Chups his seal of approval, and last month, when he opened a more permanent version of America Eats Tavern at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Va., he featured ’Chups on the menu.
Matt and Kori say they are hoping the partnership will lead to other opportunities at local restaurants, and they have their sights set on one establishment in particular.
“We’d love to get ’Chups into Nats Park,” Matt says. “To have it served during a baseball game would be a dream.”
What could be more American?