Ian Purkayastha, Regalis Foods
Nothing can quite compare to what a fresh truffle tastes like.
Aged 25, Ian Purkayastha has faced armed Serbian truffle dealers, lawsuits and crazed chefs. He has also become America’s youngest truffle tycoon. Nicknamed ‘Truffle Boy’ by the chefs and fellow-gourmands who have watched his rise up through the ranks, he boasts an exclusive portfolio with hookups from Eastern Europe to Japan. Chances are, if you’re ever sat in a white tablecloth restaurant in Manhattan, you’ll be tucking into delicacies sourced and selected by the ‘Prince of Truffles’ himself. Michelin-starred chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Chang, and David Bouley rely on Purkayastha to source the array of delicacies that populate their five-hundred dollar menus.
The fresh-faced dealer has built his name on integrity, passion and a killer pitch. Described by the Momofuku owner as the ‘Luxury Foods Google’, he holds the keys to the underground kingdom of rare cuisine. We spoke to Regalis Foods founder Ian Purkayastha about the cut-throat underworld of rare food purveyors and the personal cost of life at the top of the food-chain.
On a red hot summer’s day in New Jersey suburbs, Ian Purkayastha is sprawled out on the sidewalk. His sweat-drenched shirt clings to his body as the boots of his assailants pound his flesh. Left without a dollar, he watches his bounty of rare truffle mushrooms spill out onto the concrete. Following the script of a classic coming-of-age drama, his first day trading in the big city was an utter disaster. Desperate to keep the lights on in his run-down apartment, he’d spent the day sneaking through the service entrance of the city’s award-winning restaurants to sell his gear. Met with suspicion and dead-ends, the college drop-out and left with a cooler of rotting mushrooms and his first taste of fear.
After picking himself up and arming himself with a trio of switchblades, Purkayastha took the long route, through the city. After narrowly escaping a lawsuit with an Italian wholesaler and business partner, he started building connections from the ground up. He started Regalis foods with a handful of poorly equipped salespeople and eight long, hard months of cold calling. Positioning themselves as the source for any foraged product chef’s could imagine, they worked tirelessly to put themselves on the map. With restaurants clamouring for their matsutakes, chanterelles, lobster mushrooms and bears tooth, soon enough Purkayastha was able to turn his focus back to the holy truffle.
If I taste a product and don’t love it, I don’t sell it. If it’s too mainstream, I don’t sell it. If it’s readily available, I don’t push it.
As appetites grow and sales of rare foods increase year after year, the top 0.04% continue to shell out thousands for Napoleonic era cognac, partly-digested civet coffee and 200 year old Arctic clams. Famously, back in 2010, the casino tycoon Staley Ho dropped $330,000 on two pieces of white truffle that weighed just under 1.5 kg. A small price to pay for the taste of luxury. Purkayastha has learned to speak their language, trading in rarity and exclusivity as the markers of taste.
Collecting antiquity from other continents has long been a pastime of the super-rich and rare food has never gone out of fashion. In the days of the Grand Tour, the aristocracy formed secret clubs to dine out on Italian pasta and rented pineapples as status symbols for parties. Today, their centrepieces are even more wild and delicious; spiky Mao Shan Wang Durian fruits, wild Japanese algae, monkfish liver and Hanaho Shiso Violets. Exotic food has always been an indicator of wealth and influence and, like any good salesman, Purkayastha is savvy to the power of spin.
If you’re paying through the nose for pounds of rare caviar, the story of origins is essential – it lends legitimacy to the price tag. Feeding the fantasy, Purkayastha explains that the spider crabs and Japanese strawberries in his care are lavished with more luxury than most people will see in their lives. Keeping his ear to the ground, the young dealer explains that he searches for his newest commodities by scouring the FDA approved lists. With a clipboard of importation documents, rolls of cash concealed in his shoe, and a mean eye for luxury, he dictates the tastes of the New York City elite. And, with his empire earning him millions, tastemaking is big business. He calmly states, “I am a fully established voice in the industry. If an ingredient seems cool, then I sell it, if it’s mediocre and I don’t understand what the point of it is, I don’t.”
The Billionaire Boys Club
The products I sell fly into Newark like first-class passengers, the 1 percent of the food world.
In a business that can change on a knife’s edge, trading exotic foods are as much about reputation as is is about the product. Standing in front of men whose names are peppered throughout the San Pellegrino lists, the high-school drop-out from Arkansas didn’t stand a chance. Once he got a foot in the door, these chef’s demanded miracles from Purkayastha week after week.
He tells the tale of how celebrity chef Jean-Georges sent him into the French wilderness to track down a truffle hunter with only a first name and an out-of-date phone number. Time and time again he laid out the exotic delights before them before he was welcomed into the fold. As the new kid on the block, the chefs on the Upper East Side christened him ‘Truffle Boy. He adds, “It was just like high-school. All the chefs have cliques of friends and, you have to work hard to be accepted into the group.”
People don’t call me Truffle Boy anymore.
Purkayastha’s accounts of life at private school account for his uneasy relationship with the world he inhabits. Growing up, he described an outlook that cast him as “the unluckiest person in the world”. On the outside looking in, he was a slightly chubby kid with a five-dollar bowl haircut and a strange fascination with mushrooms. But as the CEO of luxury food purveyor Regalis Foods, his keen taste and savvy business acumen has allowed access to the rarified world of exotic taste, deep pockets and a rolodex of numbers that include the most influential tastemakers in the culinary world. In a moment of pensiveness, the wunderkind of culinary commerce reflects on the career he has tenaciously carved for himself. “I don’t know, maybe I’ve always wanted to fit in”, sighs Purkayastha, “But, now I’m doing it on my terms, I’ve cultivated this atmosphere that I am able to dictate ’.
As our interview comes to a close, we can’t help but ask, if not trading in truffles, what else would capture his interest? “Well,” he replies, “when I was young I had a fascination with gemstones and precious gems.”
Black Truffle Ravioli with Foie Gras Sauce Recipe
from ‘Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground’
Called the ‘diamond of gastronomy’ by the French gourmand Brillat Savarin, the truffle is the perfect luxury commodity. Lavishing the tables of nobility for thousands of years, our lust for truffles is intertwined with their connotations with wealth, desire and obsession. Foraged from the earth, these misshapen mushrooms are capable of romancing the palate, filling entire rooms with a heady, vegetal pheromone. Purkayastha explains, their aroma ‘encompasses fragrances of mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, garlic and chlorophyll, cured meats and herbs, the smells of the soils and the seasons, of intimacy and rebirth, the complex and elusive scent of human desire”.
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tbsp semolina flour
3 large eggs
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup fresh ricotta, drained
2 tsp ground black pepper
2 oz black truffles
1 egg beaten, for egg wash
Foie Gras Butter
To make the pasta; blend ingredients in a food processor until thoroughly mixed. Place onto a wooden counter, and press into a dough. Roll out to the thickness of a nickel and cut into two evenly sized sheets.
To make the filling; mix the Parmigiano, ricotta, and pepper in a bowl. Peel the truffles and slice the skin. Add the chopped skin to the mixture.
Then, to assemble; place a tablespoon of mixture 4inches apart on one sheet of pasta. Slice 1 oz of the peeled truffles into thick rounds and place on top of each tablespoon of filling. Brush the corners of the dough with egg wash, cover with the second sheet of pasta. Cut and crimp the sheets together with a fluted ravioli wheel.
Boil 3L of water in a large pot and toss in the ravioli. Cook for 2 minutes, reserving a cup of pasta water.
Drain the ravioli and place in a medium saucepan on a low heat. Add the Foie Gras Butter to the pan, thinning the resulting sauce with a tablespoon of pasta water.
Finish with Parmigiano and shavings of the remaining truffle.
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Regalis, inspired by the Latin word ‘Regius’, is dedicated to purveying nature’s rarest gems to an exclusive list of Michelin-starred restaurants, home cooking enthusiasts, and lovers of the world’s finest ingredients. Regalis Foods was founded in 2012 by Ian Purkayastha, who began working in the industry at age 15, foraging for mushrooms in his small hometown in Arkansas. His memoir, ‘Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground‘ tells the tale of a country kid who grew up to be a force in the closed world of fine dining.
Follow his story @ianpurkayastha