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."