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Rodrick Markus: The epicurean Indiana Jones

Like an epicurean Indiana Jones, Rodrick Markus searches for high-end teas and other exotic ingredients for the best chefs in the world, eating danger for breakfast— with freshly shaved truffles

Published: Aug 7, 2014 07:02:16 AM IST
Updated: Jul 31, 2014 05:23:08 PM IST
Rodrick Markus: The epicurean Indiana Jones
Image: Jeff Sciortino for Forbes
Markus feels like he is a black goods market dealer. “Any person I work with knows I always want what’s not on the list .”

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.

Raised in Highland Park, Illinois, Markus always “felt this really strong connection to food and spirits.” After graduating from the University of Vermont with a degree in psy- chology, he eventually pursued his passion for fine goods modestly by selling wine and cigars out of his car. He soon expanded his network of consumers and products online. But it took years of failure to master a volatile market: “I’ve gone broke almost 10, 15 times.” Markus has often taken a meager salary and put 90 percent of his profits back into the business when times got lean or markets collapsed. He has to rely on Third World countries that do not know any better than to send expensive perishable goods in a plastic bag or thin cardboard box. And he has to hope that the chefs he supports stay autonomous and in business. It’s all a gamble. “Even as I grow, there are many times where I’ll be the last guy paid. It’s more important to grow this and keep the flow than take money out.”

Now finally successful, Markus goes to indulgent lengths to keep up his appearance as a man of refined tastes. In his free time he carves legs of Iberian cured ham. He likes his burger meat ground with bone marrow and always carries an insulated envelope of truffles and a shaver because he loves to “make them rain on everything”.

Markus also concocts his own products at the Cellar, like his Rare Botanical Bitters. Inspired by his passion for Negronis, Markus has collaborated with Boyd & Blair to release a white balsam vermouth this summer made with 25 ingredients that he expects will be a “game changer” in the Chicago cocktail scene. He is waiting for the government to approve the spirit, a dash of which, he claims, turns even bottom-shelf liquor into a tasty bespoke cocktail. “This is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever touched,” he says.

But he has not always gauged the ingredients market correctly. His dried watermelon powder, for instance, was “chalky,” not at all like the burst of summer he had envisioned. And although his beef jerky tea was “interesting”, he couldn’t sell it. “You have things that are real approachable, and then you have things so outrageous they may be too refined for certain palates but may be a great way to wake you up. I call those ‘FU ingredients’.”

“It’s like an ingredient you put on the menu: Rather than use a pecan, you use a wild hickory nut, which is 10 times the cost because it takes four hours to crack.”

Then again, Rodrick Markus lives for the thrill of a transformative meal. “It’s one of those things you put on the menu, and people are like, ‘How the hell did they get it?’ I love those. Every menu, just to have a little something to differentiate itself or twist it on its side a little—just magical.” 

(This story appears in the 08 August, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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