by Michelle Hespe
Katrina Markoff is a highly-creative chocolatier and the founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, a Chicago-based chocolate maker that inspires people to open their minds and travel the world through chocolate.
As is the case with most successful business ventures, there was a defining moment that created the seed from which Vosges Haut-Chocolat would grow and flourish.
That moment came for Katrina Markoff when she was dining at a restaurant in Place des Vosges, Paris, called L’Ambrosie. Katrina had fallen head over heels for the city of love, where she studied at Le Cordon Bleu and was mentored by the famous Spanish Adria brothers (the chefs behind the world-renowned former restaurant, El Bulli). She had always liked chocolate, but had never really been in love with it. Until the end of her dinner when a warm, flaky, salty beignet filled with a frozen dark chocolate ganache was delivered to her table.
“The moment I took a bite, there was a chocolate explosion of sorts on my palette and I was brought into the moment of now,” she explains from her home in Chicago. “I could only think about this experience occurring at the present moment.”
When Katrina returned to the U.S., she searched high and low but couldn’t find any quality or interesting chocolate on the market. For years, she had been traveling the world studying food, and this sparked another moment that would lead to the creation of Vosges Haut-Chocolat. “I felt a tremor, and decided that I would create a collection of chocolates that provoked people to travel the world through chocolate,” she says. “Chocolate that would bring people into the now.”
Katrina began experimenting and quickly realized that most people’s ideas about chocolate were limited. “The idea of curry and chocolate is often received with disgust on the face, until someone takes a bite, and like magic, a scowl is turned into a smile,” she says. “Then the mind opens to new ways of thinking about chocolate.”
The recipes for Vosges chocolates created by Katrina read like facets of titles in an exotic recipe book: Vanilla Rooibos Tea, Tumeric Ginger, Smoked Salt, Chocolate Bacon, Pink Himalayan Crystal Salt Caramel, Green Tea and Spirulina, Coconut Ash and Banana, Smoke and Stout…the wonderful list goes on.
“The inspiration behind Vosges is the idea of using chocolate as a medium for people to experience the world in different ways,” says Katrina. “The idea is that by exposing people to unusual pairings with chocolate that tell a story, it broadens their minds to new experiences outside of the box of chocolates in front of them.”
Katrina’s ideas often come together organically, however “the creation of a new collection is never without meaning,” she explains.
There are four steps that Katrina takes before the creation of one of her chocolate collections. “You could apply these to any medium,” she says.
Step 1: FALL IN LOVE
“My first step, and the origin of everything thereafter, is the act of falling in love with either beauty, a curiosity or a cause,” she explains. “This may be as simple as my first encounter with wattle seed, a food staple of the Australian Aboriginal culture; the beauty of Antoní Gaudí’s cathedral, La Sagrada Família; or the women of Afghanistan working in a beauty parlor.”
Step 2: INSPIRATION
“With love there is no thought, only feeling, and it inevitably floats me to the next step of inspiration,” says Katrina. “A moment of transparency comes, and the inspiration transforms into a vision of connectivity to my craft. Listening carefully, I hear the vision with clarity, allowing me to translate the love into my medium of chocolate storytelling.”
Step 3: ACTION
“Then, action is not just dreaming and leaving thoughts in the clouds, but about actually DOING something to physically create the idea,” she says, her passion and drive shining through in every word. “It is the pivotal moment. I act so as not to lose the idea to the fires that flare up around me in a moment’s notice. I take action to create the collection out of dire need for it to tangibly exist. It is never perfect, for if it were, it would never be born.”
Step 4: EXPERIENCE
“Finally, there is the experience. The inspiration, ingredients and the story create the final experiential interaction of each product with me. I embark upon a personal, sensory journey: the loosening of the ribbon and lifting of the boxes, the dissemination of a message, the interpretation of new parfums and the connection with my senses. I stop and think about something in a new light. I open my mind to a novel idea that I can possibly create through my medium.”
Katrina goes on to tell about an experience where these four steps came clearly into play. “While traveling in Hong Kong, I fell in love with this beautiful necklace from the Nagaland Tribes in Northeast India,” she says. “When I returned home, I researched the Naga people and learned that their culture was endangered. It felt important to me to try and help to preserve and honor their culture.”
Then came the ‘Action.’
“That night, I went through my kitchen and all the ingredients that I’d stockpiled from my travels,” Katrina explains. “I had coconut and curry, which are common ingredients in Nagaland cuisine. I started making a curry coconut milk chocolate truffle, naming it Naga. That was the first time it occurred to me that chocolate could be a medium for storytelling about things that have true meaning.”
Wrapping up our chat, Katrina lets me in on another pastime of hers: she often paints with chocolate late at night in her studio. I picture her applying turmeric ginger chocolate and a streamer of matcha and mint chocolate to canvas, every stroke finely tuned into her mission of spreading peace, love and chocolate.
When visiting the International Home + Housewares Show, you can easily visit one of the Vosges Haut-Chocolat stores in downtown Chicago, at 951 W. Armitage Avenue or at the Northbridge Mall, 520 N. Michigan Avenue.
To learn more, visit Vosges Haut-Chocolat.