Growing up, Katrina Markoff really didn’t like chocolate that much.
“The only ones I would eat were Hershey almond bars and Mars bars,” Markoff says. “And that was more because I liked the almonds.”
Fast forward a decade or so to Paris, France, where Markoff was a student at Le Cordon Bleu and started adding such, for the time, idiosyncratic ingredients to chocolate such as curry and wasabi. After returning to the States, Markoff worked for her uncle, who owned a mail order business in Dallas, where she learned how to bring a product to market, to write copy and do photo styling.
When her uncle asked her to find a chocolate they could carry in their catalogue, Markoff also learned something else—that chocolate really hadn’t changed much over the years.
“It wasn’t special,” Markoff says. “It was about a sweet experience rather than a rich one. There hadn’t been an innovation in chocolate since World War II.”
Extensive culinary traveling had introduced Markoff to the flavors of a myriad of countries such as Italy, Thailand, France, Hawaii, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, China and Australia, and she also worked under the direction of Ferran and Albert Adrià at El Bulli, a restaurant considered to be one of the best in the world.
Taking spices she had gathered during her world travels and a necklace made out of what she thought were shells (and would later learn were tigers’ teeth) from the Naga tribes in India, she created a curry and coconut truffle, calling it Naga in honor of the tribe. Markoff liked the flavor so much that before the night was over she had created twenty other flavor profiles as well, such as saffron with white chocolate and sugar crystals representative of Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi's mosaic work, a Hungarian paprika, and chocolate ginger. All were based on her travels and her yearnings for real taste experiences.
Taking the next logical step, Markoff started Vosges Haut-Chocolat, an upscale chocolate company, opening her first store in Chicago in 1998. Within a year, her chocolate was featured in Neiman Marcus. Another fast forward. Vosges Haut-Chocolat is now in 2,000 stores and has eight dedicated boutiques. Last year, the company made $30 million dollars.
But Markoff is only 38 years old and still ready to climb more mountains. Vosges Haut-Chocolat sells international, sophisticated and high-end chocolate. When retailers approached her about creating a mass market chocolate, Markoff thought about what was out there that she would eat. The answer was nothing.
Determined to not only recreate her unique chocolates at an affordable price point, she also wanted to focus on old school practices and craft processes using American ingredients.
The result is her Wild Ophelia brand, all natural chocolates with names like New Orleans Chili, Smokehouse BBQ Potato Chips and Salted Chowchilla Almond, which will be available this March in stores like Walgreen’s and Target and selling for $3.99 a bar.
Each of the labels carries a description of the chocolate. For example, the Wild Ophelia Sweet Cherry Pecan Milk Chocolate Bar lists the ingredients (and the calories—but we won’t even glance at that), a listing for the varietal (Western Schley Pecan), the artisan (for this bar it’s Sally Harper of Del Valle Pecans of Mesilla Park, New Mexico), and a description of the bar's flavor profile (pecans with a robust aroma and a mellow bite, juxtaposed with Traverse City dried tart Michigan cherries in deep milk chocolate). That’s followed by a description of the craft: The All Natural Peanut Butter and Banana Chocolate Bar is crafted with no added preservatives, coloring, GMO or sugar. The hand-cut and low-temperature dried bananas are from the lava-enriched soil of Kauai by the artisanal family-owned Uncle Mikey’s Hawaiian Foods. Handpicked, their peels are recycled and used for compost and chicken feed.
Markoff frequently uses the word authentic and that comes across in her products. Bite into Wild Ophelia Southern Hibiscus Peach Milk Chocolate Bar and you can feel yourself morphing into a Southern belle with the tastes of luscious chocolate, the bite of hibiscus and sweet peaches.
“We’re always going, always going,” says Markoff about her projects. “We’re working on new flavors for Wild Ophelia like burnt marshmallow caramel, peanut butter banana caramel using real bananas, and a root beer float caramel that’s very soulful.”
Markoff is also opening a new 50,000-square-foot corporate facility in Chicago at the end of the year which will be open for tours. In keeping with the American sources and artisan concept, she says they’re working on a relationship with Theobroma cacao or chocolate trees in Hawaii.
“Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where the trees can be grown because you have to be 10 to 15 degrees either south or north of the equator,” Markoff says. “So Hawaii is the only place with the right latitude and longitude. The place only has 100 acres right now, so it will take years and years to do this.”
But the time doesn’t matter. For Markoff, growing cacao trees on American soil just seems so right.
“It’s so personal,” she says. “I don’t do anything that isn’t personal and part of my journey.”