Food & Drink
Meet Katrina Markoff - Chicago’s luxury chocolate maker
If you ask Katrina Markoff, CEO and founder of luxury chocolate maker Vosges Haut-Chocolat, “chocolate” is the most powerful word in the dictionary. At least in the food dictionary.
“I don’t think there’s another word that evokes a similar response,” Markoff says with a big smile.
“Chocolate has an amazing range. It can go from savory to sweet, in a million forms – it can be solid, liquid, foam, a scent, iced, powder, and an extract. There’s sensuality and a spirituality or soulfulness to it, so it’s a great thing to work with. It makes people happy, and I like to make people happy.”
These days, Markoff has a successful business, but for years her family gave her a different label: she was the dreamer.
Her entire family has excelled in the business world. Her mother, Michelle, built KCOM Environmental, a company that sells cleaning solvents and handles disposal of hazardous chemicals in the Markoff family hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
This is Katrina Markoff
Profession: President of Vosges Haut-Chocolat
Education: Vanderbilt University, Le Cordon Bleu
Favorite travel destinations: Oaxaca, Mexico; the Luberon valley in France; Croatia; Zion National Park in Utah
Favorite food: Lebanese, anything Middle Eastern
Favorite music: Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Etta Jones
Favorite holiday song: Whitney Houston’s version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Markoff’s older brother Jonathon is currently CEO of DeNovo, an environmental remediation company based in Chicago, and their younger sister, Natalie, has her own public relations and marketing firm in New York.
Went to Paris
Katrina attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in chemistry and psychology, but those took a backseat to her passion for working with food. She packed her bags and went to Paris to study at the famed culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, where she was awarded the esteemed Le Grand Diplôme, marking her mastery of culinary and pastry skills. Although she viewed this as an accomplishment, Katrina soon found the French style too restricting.
‘People thought is sounded obscure, weird, and not very tasty’
“French kitchens were very traditional and conservative, and they didn’t allow a lot of creativity,” Markoff explains. “The focus is on understanding the methodology. Even the dress code – the toque hats, ties, checked pants, white pressed jackets, aprons, and clogs – are formal and rigid, and the kitchens themselves were very utilitarian, with fluorescent lights.”
Following graduation, Markoff apprenticed at Spain’s Michelin three-starred restaurant el Bulli, run by haute cuisine legend Ferran Adrià. The creative master chef, who refers to his style as “deconstructivism”, was a breath of fresh air for Markoff, as was his warmer, more non-traditional kitchen. As her apprenticeship came to a close, she had a heart-to-heart with Adrià.
“He said, ‘What do you want to do next?’” Markoff recalls. “And when I said, ‘I should go work at some three-star Michelin restaurants,’ he told me it would be ‘such a waste of your time. You have a good foundation. Let your imagination and palate guide you. Don’t do more of the same.’ It was really liberating. I took that and ran with it.”
Traveling the world inspired her chocolate
Markoff spent a period of time globetrotting through Europe, Asia, and Australia, exploring different foods, while her taste buds built a database that would soon be the basis of a new company.
Back home, inspiration hit her one night as she thought of her favorite tastes of India. She began to create a chocolate truffle infused with coconut and curry. The idea of “experiential chocolate” excited her as a way to showcase spices from around the world.
Her travels began to reconstruct themselves into squares, bars, and truffles. She used Hungarian paprika, Chinese star anise, and chili peppers. Ingredients like curry and wasabi were not usual chocolate flavors, especially in 1998, when she first revealed the idea and her new company, Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
“People thought it sounded obscure, weird, and not very tasty,” Markoff says. “There were some early adopters who thought it was cool, but my family was like, ‘What crazy idea are you doing? Who is going to eat chocolate and curry?’”
Chocolate and bacon – a bestseller
She was envisioning something different – a product line that would be sophisticated, sexy, premium, experiential. “I had a strong gut feeling that I was in the right place at the right time.”
Markoff first made her chocolates by hand, operating out of the kitchen of her apartment, but the company quickly expanded. Today, Vosges Haut-Chocolat has two boutiques in Chicago – one in Lincoln Park and another in the shopping district of Michigan Avenue – as well as three stores at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in terminals 1, 3, and 5. There’s also a boutique in New York City’s SoHo district.
The boutique shelves are stocked with a variety of bold, elegant chocolates, from single bars like the Woolloomooloo made with Australian macadamia nuts ($7.50), to a massive Ensemble du Chocolat collection ($150).
According to Markoff, among the company’s bestselling items are their various chocolate and bacon bars. “They’re running neck and neck with the Black Salt Caramel bars,” she says. “For holidays, it’s our Exotic Truffle Collections.”
About 40% of Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s annual sales come during the holiday season, and the “Chocolate Temple”‚ as Markoff calls her headquarters, kicks into high gear in early fall. The building, located on a quiet street near Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, also houses Markoff’s test kitchen and production line. Markoff supervises the company from an artsy office while employees wearing hairnets and lab coats wander in and out of the chocolate production area or gather at desks and dry erase whiteboards to talk strategy.
The number of employees rises from about 85 or so in the off season to around 150 as the company amps up for the holiday season and creates special seasonal items.
“My favorite is one with oil from a pine tree and a little mastika, a liqueur made with resin,” Markoff says. “It’s so fresh it feels like you’re tasting Christmas!”
‘My favorite is one with oil from a pine tree and a little mastika, a liqueur made with resin’
The holiday truffle set includes truffles made with plums, Armagnac, chestnuts, and Italian pistachios, and another infused with Appleton Estate Jamaican rum, nutmeg, white chocolate, and sorrel flowers, “which are commonly used in Jamaica for a Christmas drink,” says Markoff.
Music inspired chocolate
The inspiration for new products comes from music, fashion, and literature. Walking over to a brainstorming area filled with pictures torn out of magazines and handwritten notes thumbtacked to a wall, Markoff points out how an interesting fabric texture or some old typewritten love poems might inspire packaging.
She’s particularly proud of the Groove Collection, a boxed set of truffles inspired by African-American music with flavors like whiskey, yams, and Kentucky tobacco-smoked milk chocolate. The truffles, featuring names like New Orleans Jazz and Bebop, are presented in a box shaped like a record album, complete with an album and CD of related music.
Markoff speaks excitedly of big plans for the near future. She aims to open a café and shop in a boutique hotel near Millennium Park in downtown Chicago where she has ideas for the cocoa-infused drinks she’ll premiere. Work is also under way to make the Chocolate Temple accessible to visitors. Displays at the facility will allow people to take an interactive tour, learn about the history of chocolate, take a look at the manufacturing facility, and learn about Markoff’s own creative process.
She’s still a dreamer.
Text: Tea Krulos
Published: April 6, 2016