Katrina Markoff, owner & chocolatier
Traveling the World Through Chocolate: Q&A
with Katrina Markoff
What impressed you the most about Paris’ culinary scene when you studied at Le Cordon Bleu?
I gained tremendous respect for Paris and France as a food culture. Paris exemplifies how life, culture and culinaria are woven together tightly. You go to any grocery store and chances are you’ll come across an excellent bakery. Good food is appreciated on every level and at every price point.
You’ve said that you had your first real “chocolate moment” in Paris. Can you describe how it happened?
When I was a student at Le Cordon Bleu, a group of us became obsessed with dining at Michelin 3 star restaurants. The Michelin system was huge at that time, particularly in France, and we were so curious as to the ethos of a 3 star restaurant. One evening we went to the famed L’Ambrosie in Le Place des Vosges and at the end of the meal, Chef Pacaud brought out these very particular beignet bonbons on toothpicks. He had frozen ganache truffles, dipped them in beignet batter and deep-fried them to curvaceous golden perfections. One bite and the experience began – a sweet crunchy l’attack en bouche followed by a burst of molten liquid chocolate, time stood still as it was nothing less than life-altering for me. That was my first chocolate moment and it’s why I decided to name my company Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
What inspired you to work with chocolate?
Chocolate is an incredibly versatile ingredient that comes in many shades, textures, states of matter and forms. I find it a perfect medium for story-telling. Of course, the product has to be delicious and the packaging beautiful, but there’s intention in everything I create from the spice to the story. For me, the objective is to give people an experience that opens their mind to new ideas. I always want to touch on an element of surprise and leave them to ponder.
How do you go about innovating new flavor combinations for Vosges Haut-Chocolat?
It always begins with me falling in love with either beauty or a cause. Often this happens when I travel. For example, visiting Gaudí’s Sagrada Família for the first time, I came up with the Collecion Gaudí, in which dark chocolate truffles are made with Spanish saffron and rolled in a myriad of colored sugar crystals that symbolize the trademark mosaic work of Gaudi’s incredible work. The dwindling tribe land area of northeastern India inspired really the entire concept of Vosges and Travel the World through Chocolate. I wanted to pay homage to what I saw as a dying culture. I invented a milk chocolate coconut and sweet Indian curry in honor of this amazing people. I try to tell stories of different cultures through my medium, which happens to be chocolate.
What are some of your favorite chocolatiers in Paris and beyond today?
In Paris I love Jean-Paul Hevin but my heart belongs to Pierre Hérmé. No trip to Paris would be complete without gong to his beautiful little patisserie at 72 Rue de Bonaparte. Beware of the queue… I also like [Belgian chocolatier] Pierre Marcolini and Michael Rechiutti, a small artisanal chocolate maker who is based in San Francisco. Also, there’s a Tokyo-based company called Chocolat de H and they make an incredible black-sesame, cream-filled cake that comes in a box resembling a lipstick tube.
What was the response when you first opened your boutique in Chicago?
Honestly, people thought I was nuts. I was the crazy girl who used oddities like Hungarian paprika, curry and wasabi in chocolate. In the beginning I had to cajole customers into trying them, but once they did, their minds opened, judgment was lost and curiosity begged for another bite.
How do you plan trips in terms of where to find the best food?
I always track down a local foodie and get recommendations for places that are really authentic. I try to avoid tourist towns or at least not have great expectations. For example, on my trip to Croatia, we could not get a great meal in Dubrovnik. The food wasn’t bad, but it’s such a huge tourist destination that a lot of restaurants have watered down their menus to appeal to the masses. In my experience you have to get out of the big cities to have truly outstanding food.
What is next for Vosges?
I’m really involved in the green movement; our goal is to have 90 percent of what we buy come from renewable resources or post consumer recycled materials whether it’s a chair in my office or the gift-wrapping ribbon. Our plant is already powered by 100% renewable energy and all the boxes are made of recycled board. A grand experiential collection will launch next year, I am keeping it a surprise and we’ll open a boutique in Los Angeles and hopefully in London.
If you were to open a boutique in Paris, what would be your dream location?
The Marais. I love it there and it’s where the idea of Vosges was conceived.