Absinthe. Yellow curry. Wasabi. Fennel. Bacon. They were bold, pioneering flavor experiments when boutique chocolate label Vosges Haut Chocolat launched 17 years ago. But as co-founder Katrina Markoff sits in her office surrounded by mood boards, indecipherable notes, and half-melted chocolate experiments, she acknowledges that everyone has since copied her haute approach. “Where’s the disruption?” she asks.
Here are her three big plans to answer that.
1. A caffeine-free, dairy-free, and (nearly) sugar-free hot chocolate called Super Dark Elixir that’s made from fermented cacao beans ground in an Indian granite stone mill, smells sweet and milky, and hits the tongue with a pleasantly bitter jolt. It’s currently available in Vosges’s Chicago and New York boutiques in exotic flavors including Reishi Mushroom and Coconut Ash and Banana, where it’s billed as an alternative to coffee.
2. Through her new Innovation Lab, Markoff works with a small team of creatives–a chocolatier, a playwright who happens to be an expert in business strategy, and an exhibition artist who specializes in packaging design–to bring small-batch, experimental ideas to market in a matter of days, rather than the nine months it usually takes Vosges to turn a concept into a retail product. From hand-painted Easter bunnies with gold leaf ears to “Renegade Heart” Valentine’s boxes that burst with rose gold spikes, Markoff can test big plans at her small boutiques before mass-producing them for market.
3. Markoff is in the planning stages to spend $13.5 million to convert her 42,000-square-foot Chicago production facility into a Willy Wonka–esque Chocolate Temple. When it opens in the fall of 2016, for about $40 a person, visitors will be able to ferry up the Chicago River to her factory, where they’ll peek in at the assembly line, learn about of cacao, participate in guided “chocolate meditations,” create their own truffles, and, of course, taste chocolate 60 to 70 times along the way.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
Whenever I can I get out of the daily grind, most of my inspiration happens through travel and vacations in times where I don’t focus on the day to day work the ideas flood in like a torrent of waterfalls. I just grab what I can through a journal.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Transition slowly from my dream state. It’s usually such a contrast to my awake brain but loaded with symbolism that I try to decipher or stay in.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
I have to work both sides of my brain daily. I wish it was just my right brain focused on creativity and being a free spirit.
What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
Best thing is to do something new every moment. If normally I drink a matcha for breakfast after I wake up, then I’ll get up run up and down the stairs and then drink it, but made in a blender instead of with a whisk. If normally I open doors with my right hand, then I’ll use my left instead. It makes a dramatic difference in unlocking new patterns and ways of thinking.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
Erykah Badu because she lives by her principles with great conviction, truth, artistry, and beauty. She calls upon people to live their own lives in their own light–not like her, like oneself. I love it when people use their art as a medium for empowerment. She is bad ass.