Truffle Entrepreneur, Immigrant Son’s Success

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Ian Purkayastha, the twenty-four-year-old wunderkind behind the luxury-food company Regalis, aims to “demystify this bourgeois product for a new generation.” PHOTOGRAPH BY KRISTIN GLADNEY / WIEDEN+KENNEDY

It could just be that I have had a nearly two-decade love for truffles; or the storyline combining entrepreneurship, economics and food, a mix that I favor; or maybe my being the son of an immigrant explains my response to this post at the New Yorker’s website; probably it is because I can almost picture my own son in such a story, in a parallel universe; whatever, enjoy:

HOW A TEXAS TEEN-AGER BECAME NEW YORK CITY’S PREMIER TRUFFLE DEALER

On a bare side street in Long Island City, Queens, beside Oh Bok Steel Shelving & Electric Supply, the Regalis luxury-food company keeps its goods. Upon entering the warehouse through a small red door, a visitor is immediately greeted by an intoxicating and pungent scent: the unmistakable, and nearly indescribable, odor of truffles.

Ian Purkayastha, the twenty-four-year-old truffle wunderkind behind Regalis, tries throughout his new autobiography, “Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground,” to affix the smell of truffles to the page: “cheesy, garlicky, explosive”; “the smells of the soil and the seasons”; “the complex and elusive scent of human desire.” In the chilled warehouse, the aroma floats from cardboard boxes filled with truffle jus, truffle salt, and truffle honey. Purkayastha stands at the center of it all, tall and striking in brown loafers and black jeans. He has a boy’s soft face but already a half decade’s worth of experience hustling this decadent product to New York’s food élite. In the walk-in fridge at Regalis, he pulls out a carefully vacuum-sealed bag of Périgord truffles, Tuber melanosporum, rough black orbs the diameter of a half dollar. When he shaves a slice, the interior is marbled, like a fatty steak, and Purkayastha holds it like a gem in his palm.

It was an early fascination with gemstones, in fact, that set Purkayastha on his path to truffles. They were his first love, and the first product he ever sold. With some pride, he writes in his book, which was co-authored by Kevin West, that he became a member of the Houston Gem and Mineral Society at the age of ten, during his childhood in Texas. Later the same year, he bought eighty-nine dollars’ worth of tiny diamonds, in Mumbai. That instinct toward the rare and precious, coupled with a childhood love of cooking fostered by his Texan grandfather, culminated in an early passion for diamonds’ culinary equivalent. He encountered his first truffle at fourteen, when, while staying with wealthy friends, he ordered truffle ravioli with foie-gras sauce at an upscale Italian restaurant. From then on, he writes, “I craved the flavor of truffles like an addict needs a fix.”

Purkayastha’s father, Ahbhijeet, who emigrated from Tamil Nadu, India, at the age of twenty, and his mother, Lisa, a “white-bread Texan from Huntsville,” were themselves entrepreneurs, first starting a business that imported leather goods, then pioneering a product to stabilize ladders. Purkayastha describes a childhood filled with the thrills and setbacks of the startup life style, including an abrupt move, in his teens, from Texas to Arkansas, in order to downsize. By the age of fifteen, he had followed in his parents’ footsteps and become a teen-age hustler, trawling French and Italian eBay for truffles, and selling them door to door at the fine-dining establishments of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite his parents’ initial reluctance, they were willing to chauffeur their son from FedEx terminals to restaurants. (They also accompanied him to the Oregon Truffle Festival—Purkayastha describes it as a Comic-Con for “fungus-obsessed mycology nerds like me.”) He named his fledgling company Tartufi Unlimited, after the Italian word for truffles, and dragged coolers of his wares to the best restaurants in town.

By his junior year of high school, Purkayastha founded an exotic-food club at Fayetteville High, preparing sea urchin, paddlefish roe, and escargot for his fellow students. “While other kids focused on football or getting laid, for me it was truffles all the way,” he writes. After spending his childhood as a nerdy outcast, he now found himself socially in demand. An item in the Fayetteville Flyer covering his squirrel-and-dumpling party offered him his first taste of press coverage; at eighteen, Forbes declared him “the Prince of Truffles.”

While still in high school, Purkayastha linked up online with an Italian truffle dealer, who shipped him truffles and offered commissions on sales. Purkayastha describes subtly ordering a ginger beer when he finally met the man in person, hoping his true age wouldn’t be too obvious. It was this supplier, called “Ubaldo” in the book (Purkayastha told me that most names were changed, and some of the rougher details sanded down, to avoid imperilling relationships in the small gourmet-food-supplier industry), who offered him a job as a distributor in the New York market. Forgoing college, the teen-ager moved to a cramped walkup apartment in Weehawken, New Jersey, enduring crushing loneliness, spoiled inventory, and traffic jams on I-95—all for the sake of haunting the back doors of New York’s finest restaurants, hoping to win chefs over with the ultimate product. “There were moments when I’d go into a kitchen and the chefs would tell me flat-out that I needed to leave,” Purkayastha said. “My life was also so shitty and I was so totally broke that I needed to find success, there wasn’t an option in my mind.”…

Read the whole post here.

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