Vosges Branches Out . . . Into Yoga and Pet Supplies? | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Vosges Branches Out . . . Into Yoga and Pet Supplies? 

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Vosges Haut-Chocolat

951 W. Armitage

773-296-9866

Katrina Markoff says that Bob Marley's her main inspiration for her luxury chocolate brand, Vosges Haut-Chocolat. "The way he used music to pass through his message--this peaceful-street-warrior, hit-'em-with-music concept? I'm hittin' 'em with chocolate concept. You come in and have some chocolate, and you kind of get that there's an international world thing going on." Chocolate, she says, is "my medium, as music was his."

Rasta isn't exactly the vibe you get at the recently expanded Vosges boutique in the heart of Lincoln Park. For sale alongside the chocolate bars and truffles are Tibetan prayer wheels, Hindu statuettes, and Indian oil lamps. The walls are a modish bright white, accented by pedestal display cases and heavy curtains in shades of purple. ("I was studying the symbolism of colors and found purple to be the most spiritual color," Markoff says. Her truffles come in purple boxes as well.) In the small middle room that opens onto an ice cream bar offering four Vosges flavors are items like yoga mats, leather jackets, and candles. It's here that you'll find Marley's likeness, on a $40 Vosges T-shirt silk-screened with the motto one love, one chocolate.

Markoff sees her chocolates as offering world travel in bite-size form. The Exotic truffle collection, for example, includes the Red Fire, which invokes Mexico with ancho and chipotle chilies and cinnamon in dark chocolate, and the milk chocolate Woolloomooloo, a shout-out to Sydney that's blended with macadamia nuts and dusted with shaved coconut. (Macadamia trees, the Vosges catalog explains, are indigenous to Australia.)

The 32-year-old chocolatier is something of a world traveler herself. At Vanderbilt University she majored in chemistry because she was "fascinated by different states of matter," she says, but by her senior year the lab had lost its allure. She'd always been interested in cooking. In high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she'd baked pies and cakes for her teachers and her mom's friends under the name Trini's Treats, and in college she cooked weekly dinners for her Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters. Three days after receiving her degree in chemistry and psychology she decided to ditch hard science and study at Le Cordon Bleu.

Paris initially suited Markoff to a T. But after a year and a half her passion began to fizzle again. "I got bored with France," she says. "They wouldn't let you do many interesting, creative dishes because they really wanted to teach you the fundamentals of French cooking." With the help of a friend's family connection to famed Spanish chef Ferran Adria, she landed a prestigious three-month apprenticeship in the kitchen at El Bulli, Adria's wildly experimental restaurant north of Barcelona. After that she traveled in southeast Asia and India for nine months, cooking and looking over the shoulders of one chef after another, each reference leading to the next.

Markoff returned to the States in 1997, still restless and unsure how to parlay her experience into a career. She moved to Dallas to work for an uncle's mail-order business, and by night she tinkered with recipes in her apartment's tiny kitchen. It was here that her first truffle, the Naga, was born. Markoff happened to be wearing a necklace she'd picked up in India. Inspired, she added coconut and curry to milk chocolate and was surprised to find it worked. "How interesting to explore a culture through chocolate!" she thought.

In 1997 Markoff sold some of her first truffles to Neiman Marcus in Dallas, but things really started to click the next year when she moved to Chicago. With an old friend who has since left the company, she first set up a retail location in Bucktown, making and packaging the chocolates in her apartment--this time one with a good-size kitchen. When Vosges moved to the Nordstrom building in 2000, chocolate production moved to the burbs. The company now has five locations--three in Chicago and one each in Vegas and New York--and takes in $6 million a year.

When Vosges settled into new corporate headquarters in Bucktown five years ago, Markoff designated a yoga room and hired an instructor to teach classes for any interested employees each Wednesday. One night, blissed out after a class, Markoff treated herself to a Naga truffle. "I mean, I was feeling every spice that made up curry," she says. "I was tasting the texture of the shell versus the ganache and how it crumbled in my mouth, and what flavors were unleashed at what point in the eating process. It was so much more amplified. I realized then it was because finally I was inward and my mind was slow and I was paying so much more attention to my body." Excited, she called up yoga instructor David Romanelli, her best friend from college, and together they set up a yoga-and-chocolate retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico, in October 2004 (a second trip is scheduled for next fall). That led to a series of yoga-and-chocolate workshops, which Romanelli now leads at yoga studios across the country. In November Romanelli will teach the first of what they hope will become a monthly series of yoga classes at the Vosges boutique.

The Vosges twist on yoga is that each chakra can be stimulated by eating a corresponding truffle. This fall Markoff is launching a yoga-and-chocolate box set, which comes with one truffle per chakra and a guide to seven corresponding asanas by Romanelli.

Other new additions to the Vosges line include a truffle collection--the Zion, with ingredients like Red Stripe beer and hemp-seed nuts--and a house line of leather-trimmed dog leashes--"because people love their dogs, right?" Markoff says. "I get bored, and people get bored. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't like to do what's expected all the time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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