President & CEO, Vosges Haut-Chocolat
Posted on: February 10, 2012 | Go to profile
Always a lover of the kitchen, Katrina spent hours learning from her grandmother, “Bapchi,” and peddling her fresh squeezed lemonade and Easy-Bake Oven cakes at family garage sales when she was just seven. Three days after graduating with a degree in Psychology and Chemistry, Katrina flew to Paris to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu, returning to her culinary roots. Using her palate as her guide, Katrina embarked on a nine-month world tour to study indigenous cuisines. Upon her return to the States, Katrina founded Vosges Haut-Chocolat, a luxury chocolate business infused with stories from her world travels. A women-owned and operated company, Vosges is also dedicated to stopping the terrible violence that women and girls face everyday through their partnership with V-Day.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a focus on Psychology and
Chemistry (thinking medical school would be my path) I returned to my culinary roots and declared my true passion for the kitchen, much to my mother’s chagrin. Three days following graduation I journeyed to Paris and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School, later obtaining Le Grande Diplome in Cuisine and Pastry as well as degrees in Basic and Advanced Oenology.
From Paris, I apprenticed alongside Ferran and Alberto Adria at their famed restaurant, El Bulli, then embarked on a nine-month tour around the world studying food. Using my palate as my guide, I perused the “street food” hopping from stand to stand exploring everything from the floating markets of Bangkok to the open-air spice stalls of Vietnam. I worked in kitchens as I traveled, studying the indigenous cuisines of France, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, China, Australia and Hawaii.
Upon my return to the states, I founded Vosges Haut-Chocolat with the concept of Travel the World through Chocolate. Fusing a gamut of indigenous spices, flowers, roots, herbs and liqueurs with premium chocolate, I told the stories of my travels through chocolate. How the wattleseed encrusted kangaroo I dined on in Australia evolved from my dinner plate into a milk chocolate and wattleseed truffle telling the story of the Aboriginal people. Curry and coconut evoked images of lush Nagaland in northeast India. Spanish saffron blended with white and dark chocolate and rolled in all natural sugar crystals reflected Antoni Gaudi’s stunning mosaic works.
And then, the story would unfold. Chocolate and curry? But just try, and one is beckoned to the present and in this place of bizarre, perhaps, disgust, the face changes to pleasure. And it is in this place that one becomes open to experiencing new ideas through chocolate. Chocolate became my medium to explore other cultures, artists, religions, or movements through the senses. The chattering mind ceased and attention was devoted to the present, and the process of feeling each aroma, taste, sound, touch and sight– all through chocolate is enlivened mentally, emotionally and physically.
Q: What’s your best advice for an entrepreneur in an early/bootstrapping phase? Or in a growth/need to ‘now scale’ phase?
A: Don’t be afraid to connect with people.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step”. Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: The next big thing we’re working on is a project in Belize where we’re planting like 3,000 acres of cacao and we’re building a center that’s going to be an eco-tourism, educational center, along with a lodge. We’ll be making chocolate there and people can go down and make chocolate themselves and learn about the process of cacao in an all-working environment. Then we’re moving to a new factory here in Chicago because we’re just bursting at the seams and it will be a training facility, so again, getting people more educated on my chocolate and the process, sustainable manufacturing, and how you do that. So being a model hopefully for that and then just getting people in to taste great chocolate
Q: What do you feel separates your brand from your competitors?
A: Vosges creates a luxury chocolate experience rooted in a sensory journey of bringing about awareness to indigenous cultures through the exploration of spices, herbs, roots, flowers, fruits, nuts, chocolate and the obscure.
From curry powder to bacon, Vosges products are unexpected combinations of flavors, each telling a story rooted in my travels. This sets the company apart from other chocolate makers and keeps me passionate about my work.
We also blend our chocolate in unique ways: with clothing, art, music, yoga, books and architects. They are not after-thoughts, they are core to our lifestyle brand and are what people think of when they hear Vosges Haut-Chocolate. People and press wait with great anticipation and wonder “what will we do this year?” and every year becomes more intense and exciting than the last. Once you read the story behind it, it has a strong, renegade, save-the-world voice. It came from my heart and I made it about the things that are important to me and that’s what resonates.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: Always be genuine and true to yourself at all costs because people are attracted to passion, and passion speaks louder than anything.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: I hate safe. Safe is so boring. Though my risk-taking has seen Vosges through some tough times, I have enjoyed the journey. I love mistakes. This flexibility and daring have ultimately served Vosges well. Where the heart leads you, the money and success will follow.
ON Giving Back
Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?
A: I support V-day, which is a global movement to stop violence – incest, rape, domestic battery, female genital mutilation, sexual slavery – against women and girls. Years ago, I happened to come across the tragic tale of an Afghani woman whose face and arm were mangled by her husband with a bucket of acid. I decided I had to help end abuse, and used the unlikely medium of chocolate as a means to ease suffering, and increase the enjoyment of life. I created the Aztec Collection in tribute to the women of Juárez, Mexico. Each year V-Day increases awareness by focusing on a specific group of women in the world who are resisting violence with courage and vision. Activities will strengthen the V-Day model of empowerment by linking art and activism, building bridges across class, nationality and racial divides, and providing a center of caring, learning and healing for the local community. Activists and service providers will aid, support, and empower survivors of violence.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson your mother taught you?
A: I was raised with modest means by my single mother and grandparents, who instilled in me at a very young age that “if you can dream it, you can live it– anything is possible,” an atypical background for the founder of a luxury chocolate business. I was a pioneer in this male-dominated industry, and my success allowed the family to leave their old life (“living on the side of the highway in Indiana”), to a more comfortable existence. My mother encouraged me to follow my heart to the Cordon Bleu in Paris, where I received a diploma and an education in fine French cuisine.