The Global Grocer: Markus Draxler

When top-tier chefs need an exotic ingredient of impeccable quality from anywhere on Earth—and need it fast—they turn to Markus Draxler of North Bergen’s Solex Fine Foods.

Ain’t Mallomars: At his North Bergen warehouse, Markus Draxler hefts an Italian Molise summer truffle ($100 a pound). “It has a mild aroma and a nutty flavor,” he says. The wristlet was made for him by his oldest daughter, Sophia.
Photo by Tim Townsend

Early this year, Mike Ryan, the chef de cuisine of Elements in Princeton, got a call from Markus Draxler, his neighborhood grocer—if you define neighborhood as anywhere on the planet.

Like his chef clients, Draxler is obsessed with perfection. His clients demand the finest, rarest, freshest ingredients and provisions in the world, and Draxler supplies them—in some cases, within 24 hours.

Draxler, owner of North Bergen-based Solex Fine Foods, is purveyor as muse, inspiring his customers’ creativity with seasonal delicacies. When he alerted Ryan that the first shipments of Scottish pheasant and Italian Bianchetti spring truffles were about to arrive, Ryan thought, Okay. We can do something here.

Ryan got the ingredients the day after they reached Draxler’s warehouse and spent hours creating a layered amuse-bouche (“about 1.5 bites,” he figures) of a mole sauce of smoked tomatoes and chilies under an egg yolk cooked sous vide, topped with the Solex-sourced pheasant skin rendered to bacon-like crispness and the fresh-shaved Bianchetti truffles.

Two-thirds of Draxler’s product line ships that fresh and that fast, no matter how far it has to travel, despite the prevailing farm-to-table headwinds.

“We all try to do the right thing—you try to use local as much as you can,” he says. “But I’m in business because people like the unique product.”

Draxler ships and delivers six days a week to a clientele of 300 to 500 restaurants, 150 of them regulars, and about 80 of those top-tier establishments such as Elements, Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladstone, Daniel and Per Se in New York and, farther afield, the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.

The hub of Draxler’s enterprise is a hulking brick warehouse on 51st Street in North Bergen. The office is the only refuge in a landscape attuned to the needs of the product, not the people: The dry storage area is kept at 60 degrees; the walk-in refrigerator for produce, at 38 degrees; the walk-in for dairy, at 35 degrees; and the walk-in freezer, at 5 degrees.

Draxler, 40, strides proudly through the cavernous facility with the air of a man in a bespoke three-piece suit, even though he’s wearing a quilted thermal vest over his dress shirt to stave off the warehouse chill. The dry-storage area contains rows of shelves brimming with wild honeys, rare herbal teas and the makings of exotic spices: green alder cones, which are roasted and ground to a powder to season meat; and clay peppers, grown in the clay soil of Howick, Quebec, and harvested by workers who judge ripeness by scent, not color. Air-dried and ground, the clay peppers make a distinctive finishing spice for fish dishes, soups, stews and sauces. A full aisle is devoted to truffle products.

The produce walk-in holds fresh hearts of palm from Hawaii and four kinds of wild mushrooms, including a delicate abalone mushroom from the West Coast, each one wrapped in paper so it doesn’t dry out on its transcontinental flight. A buyer in Santa Barbara shops the coastal city’s Wednesday farmers’ market and sends everything by plane overnight to Newark. The goods hit restaurant menus Friday.

Deep in the produce walk-in, Draxler reaches a delighted crescendo; he pulls out bags of this and that as though he were Jay Gatsby flinging silk shirts into the air. Here are fat white asparagus from Austria, better than what you find in France, he says. He points out green almonds, basil-fed snails, black garlic and green strawberries, all from California.

The appeal of those green strawberries mystifies him. Draxler brought in a small batch last year for a few select clients. Then word got out among the curious and the au courant, which increased demand.

He grimaces slightly.

“You try one,” he says. “It’s disgusting, but chefs use them for chutney, for garnishes. I don’t want to say we started the trend, but…” He lets the thought evaporate into the profitable air.

Draxler has been the exclusive importer of blue-shelled lobsters from Scotland and Brittany since 2011; they travel 24 hours, tops, from sea to plate. The lobsters, which turn the familiar red when cooked, are sweeter and more delicate than Maine lobsters, Draxler says—and three times more expensive, which is why he brings in only as many as chefs order up front. You can find them on the menus of Milos, Brushstroke, Per Se and Bouley in New York City, but not yet in New Jersey.

If something eludes him—European elderflowers, for example, despite chef Daniel Boulud’s oft-stated desire for them—it is not for want of trying. European elderflowers are too fragile to ship, and while Draxler has tasted Stateside samples, he’s not impressed. Finding arcane ingredients isn’t enough; this isn’t the novelty business. He has to find the best version of whatever he’s after.

Draxler was born to the hospitality business, destined to be the sixth generation of his family to run Gasthaus Draxler, a 168-year-old inn in Southeastern Austria whose menu depended on local game and fish that he, his father and his grandfather caught. In 1998, to see the world before settling into his fate, he secured his parents’ blessing and signed up for a stint as wine sommelier on a Crystal Harmony cruise. But by the time the cruise ended, he’d met his future wife, Michele, a 10-year veteran of the Rockettes who was working as a cruise-ship dancer. A Clifton native, Michele wanted to work in New York, and Draxler wanted to be with her.

He arrived in the city with nothing but ambition, European hospitality in his DNA, and a Zagat guide, from which he drew up a list of fine-dining restaurants that might employ him. A cruise-ship guest who’d befriended him—and who was a Restaurant Daniel regular—wrote to Boulud, who hired Draxler as an assistant captain in 1999. Four months later, he was promoted to captain. By the time he left Boulud’s employ, in 2008, he was the maître d’. Meanwhile, Draxler and Michele had married in 2005. They lived in Manhattan until 2011, when they moved to Montclair.

After leaving Daniel, Draxler worked with an American firm on a real estate development in the Middle East, but started to miss the food business. Once again, he was in the right place at the right time. A friend at Daniel mentioned that they hadn’t seen much of Andrew Hamilton lately. For years, Hamilton had supplied the restaurant with fresh game birds and langoustines. Perhaps Draxler would check in on him.

Hamilton, a Scotsman, had founded Scottish Wild Harvest in 2002 to export those two products to the United States. In 2010, sidelined by a leg injury, he started to think about slowing down. Hamilton, a genial, shambling fellow who’d make a perfect department-store Santa, recalls the brief conversation that changed everything.

“Can I help you?” asked Draxler.

“I have a better idea,” Hamilton replied. “You take over the company and I’ll help you.”

That’s what they did. Draxler met the suppliers in the spring of 2011 and in June relaunched the company as Solex (named for his two young daughters, Sophia and Alexia). In just over three years, Solex has grown from three employees and a van to 40 employees, a fleet of four trucks and two vans, a network of 30 suppliers and an upstate New York smokehouse, Catsmo, which he acquired in 2012. A third daughter, Briella, has him thinking about more expansion so he can name a division after her.

Draxler’s manner is modulated in every way, from his quiet, clipped speech to some surgically deft chopstick work on a lunchtime tray of take-out sushi. The only notable excess is his enthusiasm for bagging the next great product, even if most of his hunting these days, aside from the occasional foray for a New Jersey turkey or deer, is by computer or phone.

“I call my dairy farmer and ask for recommendations of good, small farmers,” he says. “Or a chef says, ‘I’m looking for great buttermilk or yogurt,’ and I do my research. I go here and there, but mostly I have samples sent to me.”

A global network, however, means global headaches. Bad weather in the country of origin can keep a shipment from taking off, bad weather here can keep it from landing, and traffic can delay its arrival at a restaurant. If customs hangs onto a shipment for too long, it could end up worthless. Draxler says that all wild mushrooms have worms or bugs, no matter how high-end they are, except for porcini from South Africa. It’s what happens when people make what he calls “field runs,” gathering wild mushrooms to ship him immediately. It takes a savvy customs inspector to understand that the bugs are harmless. Draxler lost 300 pounds of Nova Scotia chanterelles last year because customs couldn’t identify a certain bug—or rather, because the mushrooms were left unrefrigerated while inspectors tried to figure it out.

Fresh white truffles don’t wait happily, either. Once separated from the tree roots that nourish them, they lose 3 percent of their weight, most of which is water, every day. Any kind of delay, Draxler says, means “the chef buys from elsewhere, and you lose the sale.”

Last year, an unexpected Austrian cold snap damaged much of the precious white asparagus crop. Draxler, who had ordered 500 pounds to fulfill clients’ requests, was told he was getting only 250 pounds. Giving a few chefs their full amount would leave other, equally valued chefs, empty-handed. For Draxler, that was not an option. So he personally informed each of his clients (as other Solex reps told theirs) that they would receive only half what they ordered, even as he pointed out how fortunate they were to get even that much.

Customer service takes on a whole new meaning when you operate in the fine-dining stratosphere. Traffic gridlock—a hindrance to any purveyor of perishables—is anathema to Draxler. He sent a van into Manhattan to deliver langoustines to Restaurant Daniel for a special-event lunch that day. The van got stuck in hideous traffic.

Chef Boulud grew anxious. He called Draxler, his old friend and ex-employee, and asked where the langoustines were. The exchange, as Boulud recalls it, grew “hot.” If the langoustines did not arrive in time, he explained, he would have to substitute lobster, which was not special enough.

Draxler called the driver’s cell phone. The man said he was just minutes from the restaurant, but was stuck on an inexplicably blocked-off street. What did his boss want him to do?

The answer was simple: Pull over, grab the boxes of langoustines and run as fast as you can. The driver, panting, made it. Daniel’s pampered patrons were spared mere lobster. Solex’s impeccable reputation remained intact.

Though Draxler hasn’t figured out how to control traffic or the weather, yet, he sends an employee to Newark Liberty Airport 10 times a week to facilitate the customs process, which takes four hours when all goes well. He uses a particular airline that offers cold-storage shipping and has an admirable dependability record, but he chuckles when asked its name. He’s not about to give away secrets to the competition.

At a time when local sourcing comes with bragging rights, Solex’s hefty environmental footprint might seem an obstacle. But the rules of elite dining carry a small exemption for special products that simply aren’t available nearby—or, like Oregon ramps, are available weeks before their Northeast counterparts.

While Solex’s growing roster of Stateside products has reduced its environmental impact somewhat, Draxler’s sales curve shows just how badly some people want far-flung delicacies. While he won’t divulge annual sales, he will say that monthly gross sales are about 50 times higher than when he began.

“I’m never happy,” he says of his constant hunt for the next great thing. “I’m driven.” Since acquiring the Catsmo smokehouse, he has partnered with Boulud in a line of smoked fish, sold by Dean & DeLuca and Gourmet Garage, while Whole Foods and the Meat House in Summit sell Catsmo-branded smoked salmon. He opened an e-commerce site last year and also sells select products through Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and a few Whole Foods stores.

Not that he’ll ever go mainstream. “I am not the guy for everybody,” he says. “I am the guy for somebodies.”

Karen Stabiner teaches journalism at Columbia University and is at work on a book, Generation Chef, about the opening of a young chef’s first restaurant.

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