Katrina Markoff founded Vosges Haut-Chocolat in 1998, nearly two decades ahead of America’s current chocolate frenzy and long before it was commonplace to pair bacon and chocolate. Vosges does make hickory-smoked bacon-infused chocolate bars, but that’s really one of its more conventional pairings. In fact, the brand is largely built on Markoff’s talent for turning the most unexpected combinations—think grits, burnt brown sugar caramel, dried corn, and white chocolate or horseradish, lemon zest, praline, cocoa nibs, and dark chocolate—into the most surprisingly delicious edible works of art.
“It wasn’t just about interesting ingredients,” Markoff says. “It was really about expression and getting people to open their minds to new ideas.” For Markoff, chocolate is the medium through which she can share the stories she wants to tell. Travel is by far her biggest inspiration, but she has also been known to create chocolates based on music she’s into, a cause she’s passionate about, a new favorite spice or even her yoga practice.
If all this sounds too whimsical to be a viable business, consider the fact that in addition to being sold online and in shops across the country, Vosges has five Chicago locations, including three at O’Hare International Airport, plus a boutique in New York. That, combined with the fact that Markoff travels not just to run her company but also to be inspired, makes for a tightly packed schedule. To be her best self, Markoff meditates and tries to get enough sleep, but spending time with her sons is what really helps her relax.
In her own words, here’s Markoff on fancy sheets, in-dream recipe creation and why chocolate is best eaten at breakfast.
After Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, I worked at El Bulli then traveled around studying food, mostly in Australia, China and Korea. Then I got back to the States and I didn’t want to be a chef. I went to work for my uncle, who had a mail-order business and needed to find food for the fourth quarter book.I started realizing how much chocolate was on the market, but how not so tasty it was — it was filled with preservatives and boring flavors and nothing I would ever want to eat.
I had this concept about how there needed to be more innovation in dessert. As I was traveling, I’d go to amazing restaurants, and the cuisine side was always more interesting than the sweet side, so I had that embedded in my head. My uncle also had me copywriting and he would say it’s really important to tell a great story, because people can’t see this product, so they need to know what it looks like through their imagination. Then I had this necklace from the Nagaland tribe in India. I started reading about this culture and for some reason I made a coconut, curry, and milk chocolate truffle and decided to pay homage to the Naga people and name it Naga and that was the moment that the epiphany occurred to use my travel experiences as the inspiration to tell stories through the medium of chocolate.
I fall in love with things. It could be that I fall in love with yoga; it could that I fall in love with Rastafarian music; it could be that I fall in love with this coriander seed. I get excited to tell the story, so then I connect it to chocolate and I come up with the recipes. Then I take action, which is probably one of the most important steps, because I actually do something about the idea. It’s really important to me that I get things out there, because if not, ideas can never happen. Then it’s all about creating an experience for the guest and if it’s successful, then my hope is that they fall in love with it, they get inspired, they take action to do something with whatever their craft is, and then it starts all over again.
I’ve created a chocolate lab, which is basically my own incubation lab for products that I make myself and then send to the retail boutiques or online. It creates a little entrepreneurial energy that excites me, because the business has gotten larger, so there are more departments and it takes longer to do things and that’s really stifling for me.
Yesterday I made toasted coriander and orange blossom water white chocolate truffles and decorated them with different edible flowers and it looked so beautiful. Getting stuff out and getting the feedback is so powerful for the innovation cycle and this allows me to do it really fast.
A lot of my dreams I don’t remember. I’ll remember them right when I wake up, but then I forget them, so sometimes I write them down. The Taleggio chocolate idea — Taleggio cheese with walnuts and dark chocolate — that one came in my sleep.
I think about sleep all the time. I love it and I don’t get enough of it. I’m extremely irritable, extremely angry, frustrated, I just can’t function. I want seven to eight hours and I really want eight. When I get it, it’s like the best present I could ever have.
If I’m obsessing about something then no, sleep doesn’t come easily. My boys help me to relax, though, because being with them—nothing else matters. It’s just that good. It would be nice to do my ritual, put them to bed, read a story and then go to bed.
I have to wash my face and brush my teeth, every night, in the same way. I really love to have hot golden milk — coconut milk with turmeric — before I go to bed. I oftentimes will meditate and I love reading a little bit of inspiration—nothing heavy.
I have these sheets and they are worth every penny — I love them. They’re made from organic wood pulp in Italy and I have to have the on to really sleep well. I have to have nice feather pillows that are not too stiff and I really like to have two big pillows under my knees — not always, but I do.
If I eat breakfast, my favorite thing to have is a soft-boiled egg with truffle salt.
I eat chocolate for breakfast all the time. I think if you’re going to eat chocolate one time a day, eat it for breakfast. Your palate is the cleanest. To have had that whole break of not eating and then eat chocolate in the morning is the best. I understand why people have it at three o’clock for energy, but as far as taste, I think it’s best in the morning.
Usually I spit the chocolate out, because I have to eat a lot a day. I try at least ten things a day. I taste it then I spit it out. I’ve been trying to be good.