Rare treats

Rodrick Markus imports high-end teas and finds chefs' tough-to-acquire ingredients

  • Pin It

Rodrick Markus reached for the top shelf of a metal cabinet at the back of his office. "I know, I know, I know," he said to himself. His fingers worked across a row of jars and stopped at a tall glass cylinder. I had asked him about rare ingredients. Rare ingredients is about 40 percent of what he does. He locates tough-to-acquire things for chefs who, being chefs, want something especially bad when they are told it will be impossible to get. Rare vegetables, salts, oils, spices, nuts, fish eggs — he finds the guy who locates the guy who heard of the guy who knows the guy who knows about, say, a place in the Pacific Northwest where, with the right permit at the right time, you can forage for a rare pine bark that grows 25 feet in the air.

He placed the jar in front of me. At the bottom was a single pale blue rock resembling a square stone.

"Whale vomit," he said.

Huh, I said.

"Actually, ambergris," he said, using the proper term for the gunk that collects in the gastrointestinal tracts of whales, then gets excreted via blowholes. "Mixologists like ambergris," he continued. "It is one of the best things. I've had a number of people request it. Aviary —"

His cellphone rang.

His cellphone always rings, the area codes far-flung and foreign. This one, however, was a 312. "Excuse me," he said, answering, then: "What's happening! … The caviar will be there tomorrow. … No problem. … I'll be there in an hour. … I've got some insane ones right now. … Insane, yes. … Lightly broken around the cap, about $50 a pound. Perfect, $59. … I'll just bring the whole road show. … Whatever strikes your fancy. … No problem. … Cheers!"

He put down the phone.

Matt Kirkley, he explained, chef at L2O, looking for truffles. Not unusual. Chef Phillip Foss of EL Ideas (and previously Lockwood) told me: "It would be a major shock to what I do if Rod were not in Chicago. He's a great middleman." Carrie Nahabedian of Naha said: "Rod will not jump though flaming hoops for everyone, but if you have a connection with him and need to navigate the red tape, he's the guy." In fact, asked how they landed rare ingredients before Markus, who began offering such things only half a dozen years ago, many chefs could not easily recall.

Whale vomit, I said.

"Right, whale vomit," he said. "I was trying to find some. I found these New Zealand guys who collect it, beach combers who forage. It gathers on the surface of the ocean, either washes up or people skim it off. Here, smell." He held the calcified lump beneath my nose. It had the unmistakable whiff of ocean. "Closest thing to the ocean I've smelled," he said. "It's used in drinks. It's worth $50 to $200 a gram, and anything that's not a drug that's worth that much at a gram, I find fascinating. But I can't sell it. Fish and Wildlife would have a problem. I don't want a SWAT team here. I give some away. The cost of business."

Tea's p's and q's

The other 60 percent of what Markus sells is tea. It's what he's best known for.

He owns Rare Tea Cellar, an import and wholesale business with a Ravenswood Avenue warehouse stocked floor to ceiling with rare teas and odd blends, many of which have become mainstays on Chicago's fine-dining scene. His tea sells for between $25 and $20,000 a pound; the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas sells one of his teas for $500 a pot.

The rare-ingredients thing was born from a discomfort with waiting around for restaurants to reorder his teas. That discomfort, however, tapered off in the past few years. In fact, though he's been selling tea throughout Chicago — and to a lesser extent, the country — since the late 1990s, in the last few years he's become ubiquitous within Chicago restaurant circles.

"He's the Jedi of Chicago tea," said chef Curtis Duffy, "the guy who knows everything about tea and can get anything else too. I wouldn't say he's the only one out there, but he is the only one who follows through. Others say they can get things. They never follow through, or get it, then quality drops once they have you. Rod, he gets the best stuff or not at all."

Said Shashank Goel, a Chicago-based tea merchant whose family owns 12 tea estates in India and provides Markus with several varieties: "I would never think to bring Rod a standard black tea to sell. I do not think of him ever as the guy who sells a standard tea. I think of him as the guy for whom I only produce a certain black tea during a certain moon cycle from a certain plant that's been plucked in a certain way."

Earlier this month, on a weekday night, Markus could be found in the kitchen of Grace, Duffy's upcoming restaurant on Randolph Street. The table tops in the kitchen were still covered in plastic, the walls still skeletons of thin metal. Duffy leaned back against the counter. Markus stood beside him, dressed as always: black suit coat, black pants, black shoes, black scarf, black dress shirt (open one button too many). Across the kitchen table were 15 or so of service staff, furiously taking notes.

"What if someone wants to put something in their tea?" a young man asked.

"Great question," Markus said, then solemnly: "Occasionally, someone is going to ask you for sweetener. This is a problem we need to talk about. I suggest, number one, using honey. Then cane sugar. But don't be surprised is someone asks for a Splenda. It's unfortunate, but as long as it's not offending anyone else in the dining room, you will just have to go along with it."

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."

cborrelli@tribune.com

  • Pin It

Local & National Video