If you’ve eaten at white-tablecloth restaurant in the US, chances you’ve tasted something Ian Purkayastha has procured. Peddling a daily bounty of imported spices, exotic sea urchins, three-month-old suckling pigs, and precious truffles, he is the restaurant industry’s favorite luxury foods dealer, serving 90% of Michelin-star restaurants in New York City and some 200 chefs across the country.
At 24 years old, Purkayastha has lived a full life—at least enough action to fill 300 pages of his autobiography, Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground. Born in Arkansas to an Indian father and a Texan mother, his obsession with exotic foods started with a bite of a truffle ravioli at the age of 15. The idea of re-selling ingredients came to him after purchasing a cache of 20 black truffles online with his Christmas money.
Purkayastha soon became the go-to truffle supplier in his local area. Two years later, he moved to New York City to work full-time in the highly specialized, often murky trade of luxury foods importing.
According to regular clients of his Regalis Foods specialty ingredients business, what sets Purkayastha apart is his scholarly knowledge of his products. “He’s like ‘Luxury Foods Google’ but with lungs and a tousle of black hair,” says Momofuku chef David Chang, who wrote the foreword to Truffle Boy. “He’s never not had an answer for me and he’s never been wrong when I’ve double-checked him after he left the restaurant.”
Purkayastha, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and neural processing delay as a child and skipped a university education (he enrolled in Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, but dropped out during orientation week), says his main reason for writing Truffle Boy is a desire to educate. “There’s just so much unknown information exotic ingredients, so my hope is to educate the reader, and take them on this journey to procuring and exploring these exotic ingredients around the world—from Serbia to meth heads in Oregon.”
Indeed, what makes Truffle Boy so worthwhile is his vivid, first-person account of how and where our foods are sourced. “To get the best quality and to choose your own selection, you have to go to the point of origin,” he writes.
For instance, Purkayastha says that much of the world’s truffles are foraged in poverty-stricken parts of eastern Europe and smuggled back to Italy and France so they can be labeled and sold for $6,000 a pound. Among the most fertile forests for these elusive foodie ”black diamonds,” is a land mine riddled forest in Serbia that he’s visited.
He learned that seedy truffle dealers mix cheap and flavorless Chinese truffles in a lot of black truffles. Most truffle oil brands are synthetically flavored. Pure saffron, the precious spice from the stigma of a crocus flower, is hard to source because many sellers mix dyed hay strands as extenders.
Food documentaries like Netflix’s Chef’s Table or reality shows like Top Chef, glorify the chef’s creative process, but sometimes the stories behind the raw ingredients—and the people who sell them—are just as compelling.