With Valentine's Day just around the corner, chocolate lovers across the land are anticipating heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover, Godiva, or See's chocolates.
But those whose tastes run a bit more to the wild side are really in luck. There's a delicious new world of innovative, artisanal chocolates out there creating new tastes, experiences, and sensory perceptions. And among the new generation of chocolatiers, few are as consistently daring and innovative as Katrina Markoff, the founder of the exotic luxury chocolate line Vosges.
Markoff studied in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu and later with the legendary Ferran and Alberto Adrià of elBulli—which, before it closed last year, was considered by many people to be the best restaurant in the world, one that elevated and popularized the concepts of serious molecular gastronomy.
Markoff was inspired to bring what she thought was much-needed innovation to the world of chocolate. Since its launch in 1998, Vosges' chocolate bars, truffles, ice creams, and other specialties have regularly been mixing the sweet taste of chocolate with exotic ingredients from around the world including hot chilies, olives, wasabi, wattleseed, Himalayan sea salt, curry, and bacon, to mention just a few. In addition to a strong web presence and e-commerce engine, Vosges has opened retail boutiques in Chicago, New York, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas.
As the company's products and locations have diversified, sales have boomed to an anticipated $30 million for 2012. Markoff also launched a new chocolate line last year focused on the theme of "American heritage." Branded as "Wild Ophelia," this product line emphasizes local ingredients and is now featured in many Walgreens, Fresh Market, and Wegmans stores.
Fast Company spoke with Katrina Markoff about the power of chocolate and her worldwide search for the perfect ingredients. We learned what she means by "an experiential realm of storytelling through the medium of chocolate."
And as a bonus for all you chocolate addicts out there, we found out what she has in store for Valentine's Day—so email this story to your better half.
FAST COMPANY: People have been eating and enjoying chocolate for millennia. Why does chocolate need or benefit from innovation now?
KATRINA MARKOFF: I went to culinary school after college at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I worked at elBulli in Spain. I traveled all over the world and studied indigenous foods. I went to these amazing restaurants where the meals had all this innovation in the ingredients, the combinations of flavors, and the presentation. But there wasn't really much innovation on the dessert side. When I came back to the U.S., I didn't want to open a restaurant, so I went to work with my uncle at a mail order company. One of the things he asked me to look for was really great chocolate. But when I started looking into chocolate, I realized that there was nothing really innovative and nothing particularly high quality. Everything was loaded with preservatives or some kind of weird flavoring. There was this huge hole in the chocolate space that called out for innovation. I came home one day and I had this necklace on that was made by the Naga tribe in India. I was researching a little bit about the culture. Then for some reason I went into my kitchen and made a curry and coconut milk chocolate truffle and called it Naga. That's when it hit me that I could use chocolate as a way to tell stories about cultures, art, people, and the world.
How do you tell a story through chocolate?
On the simplest level we tell the story on the chocolate bar itself. There is finite space on the chocolate bar's packaging, of course, so rather than putting marketing fluff on the wrapper, we use that space to give you tips on how to taste the chocolate. The first thing it says is close your eyes and try and take three deep breaths. We don't want it to just be a sugar fix, we want it to be a deep experience. We do these experiential collections that focus on big ideas. We did one called The Groove Collection. That collection was focused on the influence of African-Americans on American music genres from the field songs to hip-hop. For each genre we looked at what foods and flavors were relevant during the time period of each genre's popularity. The collection has 12 different chocolates that correspond to each genre. A vintage LP with all the music comes in the package.
Where do you get your new ideas and recipe inspirations from?
I travel a lot. I read a lot. I buy lot of old things. I buy a lot on Etsy and eBay. I go to new places and go to grocery stores and markets in those places. I try and meet people around the world who will cook for me so I can learn even more. Something usually catches my eye because I'm curious about an idea, or because it looks beautiful. Inspiration for me usually comes through a cultural or visual experience. It's not really about taste in the beginning, it's about sharing an impression of a place I fell in love with. But I am also very open to finding the best products out there. Nothing is totally sacred to me. If I find a wattleseed supplier who has better wattleseed than Australia, I'll gladly go there. I'm constantly trying to innovate. I want to evolve. The recipe today will probably not be the same recipe 10 years from now.
Most of your inspiration has historically come from exotic global destinations. But now you are "telling chocolate stories" in an American idiom.
We'd received a lot of offers from stores like Walgreens and Target to sell there. So I created a new line that was more moderately priced. It's called Wild Ophelia. I like to think of it as the spirited younger sister to Vosges. It's focused more on American heritage and agriculture. There's been this big movement towards local and organic food, but it hasn't connected with the chocolate space yet. We're working with a peach farmer in California, a banana farmer in Kauai, a baker in Michigan. We're getting our cherries from Traverse City, Mich. and our pecans from New Mexico. We hope that this line can help connect people with their food and help them understand where it's coming from.
So you are pushing people to try new experiences through chocolate.
If people try something for the first time, if they appreciate it and enjoy it, I think that they are more open to trying new things in life, whether it's new food or new people. The foodie movement has helped to create a new sensibility. People still want their comfort food but they are much more willing to explore new kinds of food. How many items have bacon in them now? You have bacon in popcorn, cinnamon buns, everything! How does that happen? I think Vosges is part of that evolution.
You were early to the "bacon trend." What inspired you to make the bacon bar?
When I was little my mom would make chocolate chip pancakes. The bacon would be on the same plate. I'd pour the maple syrup all over it and invariably the maple syrup would run into the bacon. Years later, we were opening our Vosges store in SoHo. We were planning our press party and I was trying to think of some savory hors d'oeuvres. I made a maple syrup milk chocolate pudding. Then, I stuck some well-baked bacon into the pudding which functioned as a spoon. Then I thought, I wonder if I could just put the bacon in a chocolate bar? Could I do that? We did, and it just soared. It's eclipsed every other bar we've made. People really have an affinity for bacon! Apparently chocolate and bacon are the perfect duet.
Why are people drawn to counterintuitive mixes of chocolate with ingredients like bacon and sea salt?
A lot of people give our chocolates as gifts because they are adventurous spirits. In a way, Vosges represents a part of their spirit. I think people are also less inhibited now. The digital age has made people so open about expressing their opinions. Now it's important to be different and express your own opinions. As for the chocolate itself ... I think chocolate is the most powerful word in the food dictionary. If you were to run down a list of food words: caviar, wine, beer, scotch, chocolate, pastries, bread, chocolate would elicit the strongest reaction. It's the most complex food in the world—that has been scientifically proven. It has a rich history. It was used as currency and it was used in rituals. It's immensely powerful. I think that will always excite people.
For all the last-minute shoppers out there, what do you recommend from Vosges this Valentine's Day?
We have these chocolate masks made with aphrodisiac ingredients. They are on dowels wrapped in leather. You can wear them and you can eat them. We have a smoked tomato flaming heart lollipop. Some of the smoked tomatoes are from California and the rest are semi-dried Sicilian tomatoes. We mixed the tomatoes with poppy and smoked salt and put it all in dark chocolate.
What about someone who just wants a gift box of chocolates for Valentine's Day?
I think on a really straightforward level, you walk into our store and you'll see gift boxes and heart-shaped boxes for Valentine's Day. One is called the "Sweet Coquette Collection" and if you read deeper you can see a whole aphrodisiac story... but maybe you just open it and eat it. Or you'll see some of the chocolate bars with ingredients like bacon or olives, and you'll understand there's something different here. But we also have comfort foods like caramel marshmallows and peanut butter bonbons. There is definitely a range. Our story is one you can access at different levels. If you go deeper into our creative process because you talked to me or because you read something about Vosges, you will see the deeper story.
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in early 2013.