Meet the Person Who Stocks Chicago's Michelin-Starred Kitchens
It's only appropriate that when I meet with Rodrick Markus, owner of Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood, we sit down for a cup of tea. "What you're tasting here is ancient tea tree flowers that grow from the pu-erh tea tree," Markus says, pouring us each a cup before he sits down at his desk behind what seems like thousands of obscure ingredients lining the walls of his office, including birch syrup from Alaska, violet syrup from Provence and extra virgin olive oil from Rioja. "These tea tree flowers were originally just discarded, but they're now starting to come to market."
It's a market that Markus has come to know exceptionally well in the past 20 years since he started Rare Tea Cellar, a wholesale company that supplies specialty, difficult-to-find teas and products to more than 1,300 groundbreaking clients, including Michelin-starred Chicago giants like Alinea, Oriole and Grace
For Markus, the journey started with a high school trip to England. "I loved the idea of having afternoon tea, and from that point on, I drank it all the time," he says. "There are only a few things I've found that can bring about real mental meditation, and tea is one of them."
Markus currently stocks more than 2,000 kinds of tea (both single-estate variations and blends), in addition to more than 5,000 rare ingredients spanning Sicilian emerald pistachios to Okinawa sea grapes. Between a slew of international phone calls, making trips to the customs counter at O'Hare Airport and hopping on a plane himself, Markus stops at nothing to find products that round out his portfolio—and chefs know it.
Take, for example, sourcing wild fraises de bois from Malaga, Spain for Noah Sandoval of Oriole, seaweed cider vinegar for Matt Kirkley of Coi, or oversized cinnamon sticks from Anhui, China, for Alinea's Grant Achatz.
"We get to work with some of the best chefs in the world, and when people are open to trying out new ingredients, it changes everything," he says.
Markus credits Paul Kahan of Chicago's Blackbird with kicking things off for Rare Tea about 15 years ago.
"I wanted to develop a tea list that would read like a wine list—not everyone's going to order the '82 Petrus, but they might order something just below it because everything begins looking reasonable after you see an '82 Petrus," he says. "Paul was one of the first guys to have me put a $150 pot of tea on the menu at Blackbird, and we sold a couple of them within the first week. It was great."
Not everyone was on board from the get-go, especially the wine pros Markus was trying to chat with at the time. "Every sommelier was so annoyed with me back then. They were like, 'Oh my gosh, I have to sit in on a tea tasting? Lame,'" he recalls. "But now people are a lot more open, and they realize that to be a master taster of anything, whether you're in wine, spirits or food, you have to taste everything, all the time."
It's exactly what he encourages clients to do when they walk through his doors (known as the "lab"), where thousands of ingredients and inspiration awaits. "Getting chefs in here puts them in the zone, and I tell them to taste, touch, smell, light things on fire—however it is they'll appreciate the product. It's led to a lot of breakthroughs," he says. "It sometimes feels like this room becomes a palette for these artists, and I'm still blown away when I can show a client something new that they've never seen before."
It was only when Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods came to do a taping that Markus realized he may have met his match. "I was like, 'This guy has tasted everything—what am I going to bring him that he's not going to know about?'" Of the 30 ingredients he showed Zimmern, nine of them were brand-new for the chef. "It's fun when you get a little proof in the pudding to remind you that you're doing something special," Markus says.
Or maybe it was the saffron tasting he did with Grant Achatz, the genmaicha selection he took part in with team Oriole, or the "Rod Tacos" he downed with Vespertine's Jordan Kahn (a Rare Tea exclusive of truffles, jamon, and caviar) that confirmed that he's in the right place at the right time.
"What helps me wake up every day is the fact that I get to work with some of the greatest minds out there," Markus says. "It makes it worth 200 phone calls for one varietal of cinnamon, or calling around for four years for a marine vinegar that's never before been brought to the States—it's all about that constant quest for something new and special."
Nicole Schnitzler is a freelance writer who covers food, drink, travel, and lifestyle. Follow her on Twitter.
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