And the secret is out. Now nearly every chef in Chicago who wants to find the rare, the unique and the delicious, are beating down the same door. ABC7's Food Reporter Steve Dolinsky got a private tour recently.
Looking for violet sugar, buckwheat honey or rare, Szechuan peppercorns? Maybe you're in the market for white truffles from Italy or hand-foraged mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest. I got a guy for that, and so do a lot of Chicago chefs.
It looks like any other warehouse, with racks of products and workers preparing shipments. But at the Rare Tea Cellar in Ravenswood, the inventory is one-of-a-kind and world-class. "This is what we call Ninja Ingredient Central," said Rodrick J. Markus. He started the company to help chefs find the hard-to-find: truffles, mushrooms, Okinawan sea grapes. Demand across the world has exploded.
"We'll bring in like a first-flush Darjeeling from India, barrel-age it in rye barrels and then ship it back to India and Singapore," he said.
Clients like Joe's Stone Crab, Alinea and Grace demand the unique.
"Bourbon barrel smoked sugar, we got violet sugar, you gotta have a guy to get a guy. And in the end, what's really happening is people start trusting us and realizing that not only are not gonna sell anything that's not pristine, but also, we're just pushing the envelope," said Markus.
An old sherry barrel is filled with tea and chocolate as a sort of flavor experiment; in his office, cold water drip towers - used in Japan for making coffee - become tea brewers.
"I equate it to like turning tea into wine; and obviously it doesn't add alcohol to it, but what it does is it creates an infusion that has no bitterness, no astringency, rolls down the throat, and when you look at it in a wine glass, you can see right through it," he said.
Rare Tea Cellar