Taking the bold step to embrace our imperfections.
The products I sell fly into Newark like first-class passengers, the one percent of the food world.Ian Purkayastha
It is a hot summer’s day in New Jersey, and Ian Purkayastha, a scruffy college drop-out is sitting on the curb with a cooler full of mushrooms that are starting to sweat. The young entrepreneur from Arkansas had been sneaking through restaurant service entrances all day, trying to sell his supplies to some of the city’s biggest names. The result of this risky tactic had been disparaging; even disastrous. Purkayastha was struggling to keep the lights on in his studio apartment, and this setback made his position even more precarious.
Today, Michelin-starred chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Chang, and David Bouley rely on Purkayastha’s discerning palette and rolodex of contacts to procure quality ingredients for their kitchens. With more than half a decade of experience, Purkayastha’s ingenuity and relentless entrepreneurial drive has earned him the honorary moniker, the “Prince of Truffles”. With his passion and vision for food sales, Purkayastha continues to drive his commercial enterprise with high ambition and ruthless drive.
As a young kid in Texas, Purkayastha saw himself as “the unluckiest person in the world”. His parents, Ahbhijeet, an immigrant from Tamil Nadu, India, and his mother Lisa, a “white-bread Texan from Huntsville,” were entrepreneurs that operated a leather importing business. This family-run business eventually expanded to include the sale of stabilising ladders. Despite their formidable enterprise, a number of financial setbacks resulted in some tumultuous years for the family. Purkayastha recalls their move from Texas to Arkansas as a means of downsizing to meet their new economic reality.
In these more challenging years, Purkayastha struggled to find a sense of belonging. Presenting recollections of his younger self, the entrepreneur describes an awkward youth- a slightly chubby kid with a five-dollar bowl haircut and a strange fascination with gemstones. At ten years old, he applied and was accepted into the Houston Gem and Mineral Society. In that same year, according to the adolescent’s account, he purchased eighty-nine dollars worth of tiny diamonds from Mumbai.
Five years later, Purkayastha experienced his first taste of the wild, earthy fungus that would change his life forever. Over a casual meal with friends, the teenager ordered a truffle-ravioli dish served with a foie-gras sauce. After this experience, things were never the same again. Says Purakayastha, “I craved the flavour of truffles like an addict needed a fix.”
Since his initial encounter with the rare mushroom, Purkyastha has devoted himself to the occupation of luxury food sourcing. Motivated by the economics of demand, the New York based entrepreneur has earned a personal reputation for combining his predilection for rare foods with commercial opportunity. Year after year, the insatiable, prodigious tastes of the world’s elite is an ever-expanding, wild frontier of high profitability. The top 0.04% continue to shell out thousands of dollars 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.
As appetites grow for the ennobling tastes of rare foods, prices continue to rise. In response, Purkayastha has deftly learned to speak the language of the market’s demand. The young entrepreneur describes a business approach that trades exclusively in the appeal of rarity, exclusivity and quality. He explains spider crabs and Japanese strawberries are lavished with more luxury than most people will see in their lives.“The products I sell fly into Newark like first-class passengers,” he remarks, “ the one percent of the food world.”
It is clear Purkayastha imagines himself a savant in the unusual regions of gastronomic tastes. “I am a fully established voice in the industry,” he says, “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.” Through years of consistent graft, Purkayastha has endeared himself to the likes of David Chang, founder of New York mainstay Momofoku, who has dubbed him “the luxury foods Google”. On his way into the industry, the young businessman had to pass a litany of perplexing trials to gain access to exclusive company. “It was just like high-school,” he says, “all the chefs have cliques of friends and you have to work hard to be accepted into the group.” An example of this, he recalls 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.
There is no doubt that Purkayastha himself is acutely aware of the currency of his network and influence. The legitimacy and success of his enterprise is determined solely by the litany of celebrity names in the culinary world that attest to his reputation. Savvy to the influence of self-promotion, Purkaystha continues to cash in on the seductive and fascinating appeal of his products. On social media, his instagram feed is an appetising smorgasbord of rare and exotic foods – spiky Mao Shan Wang durians, wild Japanese algae, monkfish liver and shiso violets, are documented in detail. Everyday, Purkayastha works tirelessly to sell the rarefied tastes of his commodities and regularly scours the FDA approved lists for the latest ingredients. We enquire if not trading in luxury foods, what else would capture his interest? “Well,” he replies, “when I was young I had a fascination with precious gems.”
Ian Purkayastha is the founder of Regalis, a New York based luxury foods company, specialising in fresh truffles, caviar, and exotic seafoods. His autobiography Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground is available for purchase here.
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