Interview with Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haute Chocolate – The Magic, the Fashion, and the Future of Chocolate
November 3, 2010.
By: Sara M. Conrad
“The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink [cocoa] permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” – Montezuma II (1502-1520) (Umberger 1981)
If you know chocolate, then you know probably already know Vosges chocolate, but if not, let me introduce Katrina Markoff, owner and chocolatier of Vosges Haute Chocolate.
She is a stylish chick with a rich background in food and tastes who invites you to “taste the world” through her chocolate. Katrina embarked on making chocolate creations in 1998. Previously, she attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with a degree in Chemistry and Philosophy. After graduation she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, earning a Grand Diplôme. She then traveled around the world, using her palate as her guide; she has had apprenticeships cooking in Spain, Italy, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, China, and Australia.
Katrina came back to the U.S. to dare Americans to taste her creations and open their minds to the depth chocolate can have. Vosges opened their flagship store in Chicago and today has boutiques in New York and Las Vegas as well. The high-end chocolate bars can also be found throughout the country in specialty shops and markets (Sahara Mart and Bloomingfoods here in Bloomington). She blends premium chocolate with ingredients such as Mexican ancho chili, Japanese wasabi, Indian curry, paprika, roots, flowers, and other staples of “indigenous” cultures in her exotic truffles and one of her chocolate bars even has bacon! Using chocolate as a medium to tell stories of her travels, local people, artists, movements, religions, ingredients, music, culture and more. To aid in the telling of these stories Katrina has brought indigenous spices, scents, roots, flowers and other components to her chocolate collections to experience the story through chocolate and all the senses; taste, smell, feel (smooth/rough), sight (the gloss, the look), hearing (the snap when you take a bite). Katrina believes by using the medium of chocolate to explore the many incredible cultures and artists of the world, and that by tasting her chocolate, people will begin to open their minds to new ideas.
Her company is green, her mission is unassailable, and her story is remarkable. By all accounts, Katrina is a culinary maverick. All of this you can find on the website vosgeshautechocolate.com, but I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about the magic, the fashion, and the future of chocolate – chocolate chic and oh so scrumptious!
(For more information on Vosges Green Mission please see: http://www.vosgeschocolate.com/green)
Why is chocolate magic? Why not a gummy bear?
Well, take your pick. There are numerous reasons why chocolate is magical: Chocolate is said to have the same sort of endorphins as falling in love. Chocolate is said to dilate the blood vessels. It has been used for hundreds of years as an amorous gift. Chocolate was also used in rituals and even as currency. It has one of the most complex flavor components – from a scientific perspective.
But perhaps what has stuck with chocolate for these many centuries is the magic and mystery dating from the Aztecs and their use of chocolate. Montezuma, a king of the Aztecs, knew it well – chocolate has the power to seduce. He used it as an aphrodisiac and it is said he consumed 50 thimbleful cups daily to enhance his libido. Chocolate was connected with the Aztec goddess of fertility and fully incorporated into the Aztec culture.
(The Aztecs gathered plants that eventually became domesticated by the Aztec – such crops included cocoa and had been incorporated in their daily food life.)
Where does this magic come from? Is it where the beans are grown or who makes the chocolate and mixes ingredients with it?
Where the beans come from is incredibly significant. They come from the Rainforest and they only grow there – it is not like you can farm them in Indiana. Another part of the magic has to come from the human interaction. Even now with all of the technology in the world, human hands must touch the coca bean in order to cultivate it. There is work in every bean. Every pod is opened with a machete, opened by hand, fermented in banana leaves, dried in the sun. In some places they turn them with their feet and the beans are also picked through by hand (to look for rocks etc.). All of this human contact puts energy in the coca bean that simply isn’t found in any other food. The process from bean to bar is pretty extensive. This may be why people have such a strong reaction to it – it’s an intimate moment.
What separates great chocolate from ordinary chocolate?
It starts with the ingredient list. For example, Hershey doesn’t ferment their beans. They don’t augment flavor, as they should. They don’t want to spend the time so they smoke the beans dry instead of ferment the beans. That is why their chocolate has a smoky-burnt flavor to it. There is not a hard-fast good/bad fermentation process. It can take anywhere from 3-9 days depending on the bean and when they are ready. You have to be patient. You can’t rush the process. For example there are three types of beans that require different processes because of their diverse nature. You have to finesse the blend to fit your palate and the taste you are going for.
What do you think of how the fashion of chocolate has changed? And continues to change?
I think we [Vosges] started this. Chocolate with different flavor combinations, we were the first to put chocolatewith bacon, of course now everyone is doing it. You have to keep innovating, there is a philosophy behind it. Like how Fannie May went out of business because they refused to innovate. You have to keep moving forward. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out. Consumers are smarter now and more aware of what they are putting in their body. Right now you can buy truffles that have been sitting on the shelves for years. They can because of all of the preservatives but I think that will change. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an “expiration date” or a “consume by” date on chocolate.
What do you think about the explosion of “chocolate mania” and how the image of chocolate is changing?
There is no doubt that it is an exciting time to be a food artisan. I do think that chocolate is cluttered at the moment. We have to ask what makes them relevant and why they are special. It will be very interesting to see who will stay and who will go. As for the image of chocolate, I love the direction it is going. Chocolate has such a depth. Can you imagine helping cure disease with chocolate? I think it is great.
How important is the Organic Movement to your chocolate?
I think it is very important in some aspects. I mean, of course this is how I eat in my personal life. Organic is very important and with my chocolate I definitely use organic dairy and sugar. Coca beans are a bit different because a lot of the farmers I use cannot afford to get the certification that they are organic since the certification is so expensive. I have to ask myself if this certification is just a money-maker for the certifying agents. Bottom line is that you need to know where your ingredients come from. And in this society it is all about trust – we need everything certified. And I like the organic movement and where it is heading and I wonder what we will be eating in 10-15 years.
What do you want people to think about when they eat your chocolate?
Everything. From the packing list, to the ribbon on the box, to the information on the card, the entire experience. The chocolate has to be excellent, the ingredients have to be perfect, it has to be a well-rounded encounter with the best product out there.
Katrina Markoff has had an amazing journey and is a of a one of a kind businesswoman with a sparkle and drive that has helped her bring her vision of superb chocolate to the masses; and it looks like we can all expect sweeter things to come.
Umberger, Emily Good. 1981. Aztec Sculpture, Hieroglyphs, and History.