As his SUV ventured deeper into the remote northeast tip of India known as Chicken’s Neck, Rodrick Markus noticed his security forces multiply. A local guide explained that this was “hard-core” Third World, the sort of place where “at any moment it can erupt into something insane.” More SUVs arrived, and when the convoy finally pulled up to an estate, 40 armed men poured out of the vehicles and led him inside. With his signature all-black ensemble—his suit, shirt and pocket square always colour coordinated—and with slicked-back hair, a manicured 5 o’clock shadow and Mykita glasses, Markus looked like a nuclear arms dealer.
But he was just here for some tea. Some very exotic tea.
Part Indiana Jones, part Willy Wonka, the 42-year-old Markus helps America’s best restaurants maintain their reputations for James Beard Award-winning cuisine by importing the world’s rarest ingredients. Chefs from all over the country revered for their haute cuisine—Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck among them—rely on his exotic goods to stay creative. Every menu Grant Achatz has ever offered at his three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has deployed delicacies from Markus’ arsenal, and six months after opening Madame Zuzu’s Teahouse in Chicago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan made Markus his exclusive supplier.
On the corner of a street beside train tracks in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago, Markus’ Rare Tea Cellar is a small warehouse of the world’s greatest edible wonders: finger limes from New Zealand, sapphire salt from the Himalayas, honey truffles from Hungary, sea grapes from Okinawa, pepper berries from Tasmania and 450 varieties of tea—including Emperor’s Private Reserve Himalayan Dream ($8,000 a kilo), brewed from the finest strands of a tea leaf delicately plucked only beneath the light of a full moon.
Epicurean eroticism, a profound arousal of the senses, is what Markus has offered since he opened the Cellar in 2005. He originally experimented with tea blending—aging leaves in bourbon barrels and mixing in potent ingredients, like cocoa nibs or citrus peel—but his business took off when local chefs started requesting the refined additives separately so they could manipulate their own dishes. Now he sells 1,600 ingredients from the shop, with access to more than 4,000 products worldwide, to 1,200 restaurants and hotels.
“The hunt for tea is exciting in a lot of the remote places, but at the same time, if it’s under the shadow of something horrible, I don’t want to touch it—almost like blood diamonds.”
“He’s out there finding stuff for chefs that nobody else is,” says Curtis Duffy, the chef-owner of Grace in Chicago, which was awarded two Michelin stars this year. “There’s not an ingredient that I can’t say to Rod, ‘Can you get this or source this for me?’ Two days, a week later, he’s got it. And not only that, it’s probably one of the best qualities of it you can get.” Duffy likes to top select dishes with a drop of Markus’ argan oil, an expensive and unusual product: Goats eat the argan nuts and digest them, which breaks down the nearly impossible-to-crack shells, and, well, expel them. Handlers sift through the dung and turn the softened nuts into oil.
Markus has probed the underbelly of Dubai’s markets for the finest saffron. He has negotiated a blessing from an American Indian chief in Oregon for a highly perishable root. He once waltzed into Moto, Chicago’s pioneering molecular gastronomy restaurant, with a steel Zero Halliburton briefcase cuffed to his wrist, hoisted it onto the countertop and unveiled a 1.75-pound truffle from Australia worth $7,000. That night a waiter ostentatiously wheeled the massive mushroom out to every diner for unlimited shavings.
Craving a tea graded higher than what the Queen of England drinks? Markus offers Emperor Aged Keemun. Splurging beyond that? The Rare Tea Cellar has a 1949 vintage pu-erh tea that sells for $30,000 a cake. Some things, like a nugget of ambergris (or whale excrement), which is actually illegal to sell, he displays just for show. He traded for the walnut-size dried clot of blowhole debris with a boy who found it on the shores of London. “You don’t want to be traﬃcking that kind of stuff,” Markus says.