A Window Into the Life of a Truffle Dealer
Ian Purkayastha first tasted truffles when he was just 15 years old. He spotted them on the menu when he was out to dinner with a friend whose parents had agreed to pick up the tab, and it was love at first bite.
Already adept at foraging chanterelles and morels in the woods near his home, he had never eaten a truffle before. In the months that followed, he couldn't stop thinking about what he calls the "king of mushrooms." “I became totally obsessed with the idea of tasting truffles again and I started researching impulsively online,” he says.
With his birthday and Christmas savings that year, he bought a kilo of black summer truffles shipped directly from France. But he didn’t have a sense of just how many mushrooms he had ordered, so when they arrived, he quickly realized he was in over his head. He knew he had to sell them quickly before they went bad.
“I told my dad I wanted to stop at Target for a kitchen scale and Office Depot for an invoice book,” Purkayastha says. By the following day, he had sold nearly all the truffles to nearby restaurants.
And that is how his multi-million dollar specialty food importing business began.
Within months, Purkayastha was working part-time for importers; by 18 years old, he had moved to Weehawken, New Jersey to better serve his clients; and when he was 19, he launched Regalis Foods. None other than David Chang wrote the introduction to his book, Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground, which came out last year. "He's like ‘Luxury Foods Google’ but with lungs and a tousle of black hair,” Chang wrote. It's no surprise that he landed Forbes's 30 Under 30 List for Food & Drinks when he was just 24.
“I’ve always tried to act older than I was, and I’ve tried to be as professional as possible,” Purkayastha, who is now 25, says. “At the end of the day, I don’t think it had anything to do with my age; I was successful because I could speak intelligently about the products, and because I had, at the end of the day, a really high-quality product. Obviously, there was some initial pushback from customers due to my age, but it just got to the point where I found my niche and got into a rhythm.”
With spring in the air, we spoke with Purkayastha to learn more about the daily reality of someone who deals in truffles and caviar, rare and foraged ingredients. Regalis Foods's portfolio includes wild mushrooms, exotic fruits, spotted prawns, and king crab. “We’ve become known as a purveyor of things rare and unusual,” Purkayastha says, even if those things are only rare to a Western palette.
Just this month, he was selling fresh bamboo to West Village sushi restaurant Shoji at 69 Leonard Street, "where it will be simmered in rice bran and chiles to remove 'aku,' a term the Japanese use to describe a unique scratchy mouthfeel that bamboo develops almost immediately after picking. When cooked through, the bamboo is tender with phenomenal flavor," he explains in an Instagram post.
Eleven Madison Park uses Regalis' caviar on a smoked-sturgeon cheesecake; Le Bernardin relies on Regalis for its seared langoustines and warm mushroom salad: and Momofuku Noodle Bar services up a decadent black truffle ramen with Regalis's goods. “We sell to 95 percent of all the Michelin-star restaurants in New York, with the exception of maybe two restaurants,” Purkayastha says. “And it’s really amazing every day to walk into a restaurant and see what chefs have done with the ingredients that you’re bringing them.”
A huge part of Purkayastha’s job entails networking at restaurants to build and reinforce relationships. When Regalis Foods first launched, he would walk into the back door of restaurants, pretending to be a delivery driver so that he could steal a few moments alone with the chef to show off his products. He’d usually walk out with a new sale. Now, he goes through the front. And customers come to him, too. “It’s so humbling to be in a situation where restaurants call on us to send pricing to them because they’re interested in our products,” Purkayastha says.
He'll spend no fewer than seven hours a day on the phone—he has downloaded an app to track his phone time, which tells him he’s averaging 7.5 hours every day—talking to customers, producers, and new sellers. By 8:30 a.m., he’s at the company’s Long Island City warehouse, inspecting orders and making sure deliveries—which leave twice daily on the company’s trucks—leave on time. During truffle season, from October to the beginning of January, Purkayastha might hand deliver up to 15 orders a day himself. He’s home by 6 p.m. each night. But just two hours later, he's back on the phone with several seafood producers from Japan. And by 10 p.m., he’s “making face time” out at his clients' restaurants.
There's a lot of eating, of course. “Being in this industry has definitely affected my diet,” he laughs. “I’ve probably gained 30 to 40 pounds in the last three years—and it’s always a struggle to eat consciously when I’m eating out of at my clients’ restaurants four days out of the week.”
At any given time, he has about 15 employees at the Long Island City location—along with eight delivery trucks. At his second location in Dallas, Texas, three trucks and five employees are making deliveries. And by this summer, Regalis will open a third location in Chicago, with three new team members.
Success in the exclusive world of caviar and truffles hasn't gone to Purkayastha's head, however. “Just the ability to purvey rare and unusual products and to be looked to as an almost-authority to all things rare and unusual has been such a gratifying experience,” he says. “Plus, becoming friends with chefs. Since I was young, chefs have been my role models and my heroes. Being in an industry where you are surrounded by your role models is so humbling.” He continues that his business, “is definitely a labor of love. But I still love all the products that I sell—and I'm still very intrigued by truffles.”