Ian Purkayastha’s teenage revolution didn’t involve rock groups, rebelling against his parents or embarrassing fashion experiments. For him it was: “black truffle ravioli with foie gras sauce”.
And three years later, aged 18, Purkayastha not only remembers the “amazing” taste of that dish, but he’s turned himself into one of America’s leading truffle tycoons.
In 2009 he took up his post as North American sales director for PAQ Gubbio, a leading Italian truffle producer.
Then in August last year, fresh from high school graduation, Purkayastha left his Arkansas home and his American mother and Indian-born father to move to New Jersey, just outside New York, where he could be closer to the action.
“In Fayetteville, Arkansas there are only three good restaurants, so I decided to go to bigger towns. There are no European style truffles in the US,” he told AFP.
Each week the slightly built teenager oversees the import of two or three shipments totaling anything between 20 and 70 kilograms (40-140 pounds), depending on the season. “My business is 70 percent fresh truffles and 30 percent truffle oil, butter,” he said. “I sell around 1.5 tons a year.”
Emanuele Musini, chairman of PAQ Gubbio, said he discovered his American prodigy during a food show in 2008. Just 16, Purkayastha had started his own business Tartufi Unlimited.
“He was buying and selling truffles on the Internet. He was only 16, but he had such good knowledge that I decided to take a risk. At first, he’d keep the (imported) truffles in a room at his parents’ place,” Musini said.
The gamble worked out. “He brought us important clients including the New York restaurants Per Se, Daniel and Jean-Georges,” all of them with three Michelin stars. “Today our US exports count for 40 percent of the total and they’re expanding rapidly.”
This February, with the truffle season ending, Purkayastha had two kilos (four pounds) left over and was wondering what to do with them. Fresh truffles only keep seven days and after that they need freezing, which lowers the value.
He was lucky: while driving the company car to a Fedex office, a friend happened to call to ask for two kilos that he wanted to supply to a Latin American client.
Purkayastha has always apparently had that touch with business.
He recounts at the start of his career researching online where he “found some in France, shipped by Fedex. I paid $150 for half a kilo (one pound), and I sold them to the local chefs. I made a 600 percent margin.”
The underground mushrooms, which have to be detected by specially trained dogs and grow best in France, Italy and Romania, fetch a wide variety of prices.
Summer black truffles go for $200 a kilo (two pounds), while winter black truffles cost some $2,000 a kilo. The prized white truffle sells for some $4,000 a kilo.
Purkayastha doesn’t regret his unusual career path. He knows his priorities and he was expelled from university after missing exams. Why? “I also had to speak at a truffle festival in Oregon.”