Rare treats

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He told them the average diner does not have much understanding of tea. He said customers may ask for a tea bag, but he does not make tea bags. He told them the whole thing is not unlike the learning curve associated with wine: "You drink bad wine for years until, one day, it's a shock to taste good stuff."

Though they listened intently, it's an uphill battle of a spiel and far from unique in the tea world. Despite being an $8 billion business, according to the Tea Association of the USA (a pittance considering the specialty coffee market alone is worth at least $14 billion), tea is an afterthought when people are eating out, said Agnes Rapacz, owner of the high-end TeaGschwendner store on State Street, which has tried for years with modest success to get its premium teas served on the menus of four-star Chicago hotels and restaurants.

If Markus makes headway, Chicago chefs who deal with him say it will be because he's enthusiastic, likable. "Truth is," said Kirkley of L20, "I don't give a (expletive) about Rod's tea. I don't drink it. I'm a chef and I drink coffee. But we carry his tea because we like him and what he brings in. You have no idea how refreshing it is to deal with someone who actually knows the food he's selling."

Into hot water

At Grace, Markus stood before two dozen tea pots, each holding a hill of dry brown leaves or a light caramel-colored mixture resembling granola. He told the assembled staff about selling tea for the past 15 years, gave a brief history of the tea trade, said some people find Japanese tea too "vegetal," threw around fun-to-repeat phrases like "mother bush" and "first flush" and "tea estate."

He reminded them, shifting from jargony expert mode to soft sell, he is just "pouring hot water over the leaves at the end of the day." He said if he's known for anything, he's known for pu-erh, a relatively obscure tea harvested in China and aged in caves until it acquires an earthy intensity. He poured the water over an expensive sample harvested in 1978. He said it's $10,000 a pound. The water turned the dark brown-orange of twilight. He said his father hates this stuff.

"To be honest," he said, with a laugh, "it should taste like very expensive dirt."

Markus is 40, nerdy and pleasant, a big guy whose all-black uniform gives him the look of a chubby Zorro. He is relentlessly upbeat. He says "That is so cool" a lot and describes ingredients as "rock stars," while simultaneously giving off a whiff of vulnerability. He is not made of wood: The day after the Grace meeting, he told me it meant a great deal to him to have Duffy there for the entire class. For the first decade Markus sold tea, chefs rarely bothered to show up at staff tea lessons. Charlie Trotter, he said, never once said hello. In fact, even now, though he has a half-dozen employees, Markus often makes his own deliveries, and occasionally a cook who doesn't recognize him will say, "Drop the boxes and leave, please."

He grew up in Highland Park, the oldest of four children. His father is a retired doctor, his mother a psychologist, his sister an estate lawyer. He has twin brothers. One is a hedge fund analyst. The other, Brent, owns a rare tree nursery in Oregon that provides Rodrick with leaves.

"I don't think Rod is ever selling," Brent said. "I think it's just the way he is, an enthusiast. When he was at the University of Vermont, he was an enthusiastic collector of antique lighters. Then vintage ashtrays. He owns hundreds of walking canes. He was putting obscure Belgian beers in my parents' refrigerator like 15 years ago, long before anyone in this country cared about Belgian beers."

Though Rodrick said he first suspected having an affinity for tea while going to afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel with his parents as a teenager, he didn't settle on his primary trade until after several years of importing cigars and wine. Goel, one of the tea experts whom Markus credits with teaching him about tea, said: "I used to get so many 'I want to be the Starbucks of tea' calls from people, I got fed up with it. Unlike Rod, who really wanted to learn tea, a lot of these people wanted to put lousy tea in fantastic packaging."

His big break came when as part of MITEA, a now-defunct business he operated with Chicago interior designer Lauren Marks, he began selling tea to Park Hyatt hotels. This led to the Renaissance Blackstone and restaurants such as Alinea, Lula, Blackbird, a who's who of Chicago fine dining. Then Le Bernardin in New York, the Ritz Carlton in the Grand Caymans came knocking. "Schmoozapalooza," Markus says, explaining his success. But mixologist Adam Seger, with whom Markus is about to start a business, said: "When you get a reputation, people do come out of the woodwork."

Of course, there is also the tea. When I visited his warehouse, Markus walked over to a rye barrel that was plugged with paper towels. A gingerbread rooibos blend, he explained, pulling out the towels. A sweet, boozy smell filled the air. On a nearby wall, the labels on the bags of tea were just as intriguing: coconut confit chai, Sicilian wild flower, milk chocolate elixir. Mixed in were rare ingredients: soy salt, bourbon smoked sugar, wild hickory nuts. He said he became obsessed with the last when he learned that wild hickory nuts were virtually unattainable.

I asked how he started selling rare ingredients. He said after the French Pastry School asked for the cornflowers in one of his teas, he and his staff pulled each tiny flower out with tweezers. That kind of thing happens all the time now. At Next, when chef Dave Beran needed coriander root, he learned it was the bottom of a cilantro plant: "They needed 20 pounds. Three or four acres worth. We were working with guys in California who thought I was nuts and said, 'Look, we'll send the whole plant, do what you want.' Then the shipment didn't come." So within 12 hours he had scoured Illinois and bought more than 400 cilantro plants. Crisis averted.

Presenting the road show

A couple of days after Grace, we zoomed around the city, Markus' black SUV loaded with Styrofoam cartons of caviar and truffles imported from France. This is the road show: a little bit of delivery, a little show and tell. At L20 he handed a bottle of argan oil from Morocco to Kirkley, who tore into it. Then he pulled out a jar of caviar.

Kirkley reached for a spoon, took a sample: "Not as nutty this time," the chef said. Markus moved his head in a vague, noncommittal way. In the SUV, Markus said he can't control nature, "but they know."

At Tru, we found chef Anthony Martin painting pine cone leaves, soon to hold a pine-needle syrup created from Markus-supplied pine needles. At Blackbird, sous chef Ian Davis asked for a flower named claytonia; at Sixteen, chef Thomas Lents took a whiff of Markus' truffles — "literally the best I have seen," Markus said — and asked, "Twenty-five bucks," then let out a loud laugh.

And at Graham Elliot, we found Merlin Verrier, director of operations. "New caviar," Markus said.

"Twice as expensive as the last caviar?" Verrier asked, reading the label.

"Well, you know," Markus said, vaguely.

"How much?"

"Hundred an ounce."

Verrier laughed, then changed subjects: "Busy?"

"With the holidays, anyone who isn't asking for something isn't in business."

Verrier took a fast taste of the caviar. "Freaking amazing, Rod" he said. Markus smiled. "But next time, bring stuff I haven't seen," Verrier added. "Bring me some of that top secret, tea mafia secret cave (expletive) the next time!"

Markus laughed and said, "I know, right? I mean, I tell people, it's just tea, just hot water and leaves."


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