How One Teenager Became One of the Most Important Truffle Dealers in the World
TUBER AESTIVUM—SUMMER TRUFFLE
NEWARK, JULY 2010
Twelve miles out from the Empire State Building, as you rattle across the overpass from the New Jersey Turnpike toward Newark Airport, you can look left and see a double-height warehouse with letters on its facade that spell out United Cargo. The U fell off once, and every time I saw _nited Cargo, I thought about the truth of my industry, the food business. It’s benighted: dark, shadowy, shady.
That warehouse is Newark’s cargo terminal, where night flights from around the world bring goods to the tri-state area, home to twenty million Americans with a collective economic output greater than that of all but a dozen countries. The Newark cargo terminal is a global rendezvous point for the flat-world economy, a depot for valuable commodities, a clearinghouse for perishable freight that wouldn’t withstand slower passage upon the high seas. Inside I’ve seen pallets of iPhones from China, long-stem Ecuadorian roses, Ferraris, caged live birds, whole king salmon from Alaska’s Copper River and human corpses that arrive in giant Styrofoam coolers and are met by hearse-driving funeral directors.
I know Newark’s cargo terminal well because New York is a hungry city, and my job is to supply chefs with the exotic delicacies they use to seduce their customers. Black and white truffles, caviar, Japanese Wagyu beef, Spanish pata negra from abroad. Golden chanterelles, matsutake and porcini foraged from the Pacific Northwest. Ramps, pawpaws and wild ginseng harvested from the ferny hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. The kind of products I sell fly into Newark like first-class passengers, the 1% of the food world, and within hours they are being prepared in the finest restaurants in New York City—the Michelin-starred, New York Times–celebrated, Best Restaurants in the World list–topping showplaces run by celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud, David Chang and Thomas Keller.
What I sell are known in the industry as specialty foods. They represent a niche within the already small niche of grade-A, hand-selected, thoughtfully curated local/seasonal/organic/artisanal food you find on ambitious menus. The specialty foods game is fierce because the stakes are high, and New York is where you can make it big if everything comes together just right—or lose everything if it doesn’t.
At the height of white truffle season, which runs from October to New Year’s Day, I can sell 50 pounds a week. In volume, that’s nothing compared to the 50 pounds of potatoes a restaurant might use for a single meal service. But 50 pounds of truffles amounts to $100,000 wholesale. Even jaded chefs perk up when I walk in with a basket of truffles. I’m horrible for a restaurant’s food costs, but chefs will pay anything for my product. Nothing in the kitchen, with the possible exception of cocaine or 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, makes a chef hornier.
Other companies will say that they have the best truffles, or caviar, or mushrooms, or olive oil or whatever. What you need to understand is that the specialty foods market is rife with fraud. Adulteration is rampant. Counterfeiting is commonplace. Things like substituting worthless Chinese truffles indistinguishable in appearance from true European black truffles but lacking all flavor. Caviar treated with borax, which gives the beads extra pop but can melt your liver. Foie gras dyed yellow because that’s how chefs think it should look. “Italian” olive oil that is actually produced by agribusiness giants in Turkey or Greece, shipped across the Adriatic in tanker ships, funneled into pretty glass bottles, and labeled extravirgin as if it came from some ancient Tuscan grove. And it’s not just a luxury-food issue. Even the most basic ingredients in your pantry are likely adulterated. Preground black pepper is doped with ground olive pits. Salt is cut with talc and other fillers. Eater beware: The food industry is like the Wild West. My goal from the start has been to change that—still is.
For now my point is simply that the belly of New York rumbles mightily, and the city devours every morsel that reaches its greedy maw. Nothing is too expensive or too exotic, and my job is to scout the world for the most delicious foods known to man.
It’s also worth knowing that the first time I went to Nited Cargo to pick up a shipment of truffles from Italy, I was 17 years old. That’s when I moved to New York with a dream. Three years earlier I had found my calling at my grandparents’ cabin in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. That April day I walked out the back door with my Uncle Jared, and he taught me how to forage for morels. The next year I learned about truffles.
Truffles, if you don’t know about them, are the ultimate mushrooms. They come out of the ground damp and lumpy, looking like clods of dirt. The French call them “diamonds of the kitchen,” because they are rare and because beneath their drab exterior they contain an inner mystery, a unique aroma that no one can fully describe. It encompasses fragrances of mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, garlic and chlorophyll, cured meats and herbs, the smells of the soil and the seasons, of intimacy and rebirth, the complex and elusive scent of human desire.
Using savings pooled from three Christmases, I bought a kilo of truffles off the French version of eBay and sold to chefs in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Overnight, I became a teenaged truffle dealer.
Today, at 23 years old, I run my own company, Regalis, which sells truffles as well as wild mushrooms and other foraged edibles, caviar, specialty meat and seafood, olive oil and an exclusive line of preserved truffle products that I created myself. Regalis services over 300 accounts, including 80% of the Michelin-starred restaurants in New York. Per Se became a client. So did Momofuku Ko—and not long ago David Chang called me to propose collaborating on a line of cobranded caviar. Chefs have come to trust me.
Earlier this year, I was in Spain to source black truffles when my phone rang. It was David Bouley. Bouley, a master in the kitchen, has trained more influential chefs than I can count, a legacy of protégés that includes Eric Ripert, Dan Barber and Anita Lo. His elegant Tribeca restaurant, Bouley, continues to thrive after almost three decades, and its most recent review in the New York Times reads like a love letter to the chef’s seductive finesse and ageless technique.
“Hey Ian, I hope you’re doing well,” Bouley said to me over the phone. “The wild watercress you brought was incredible. What else do you have? I want anything and everything. You’re doing great work. Keep it up.”
When a chef I respect is happy with my work, it’s the biggest reward I could hope for. I’m not trying to boast, but it’s hard to believe that before I moved to New York, all I had was a dream. When I first met the big-city chefs I had admired from a distance, all they had to say to me was, “Who the fuck are you?”
Truffle Boy is the story of how everything changed.
While I was finishing up the book, my girlfriend, Jane, and I spent a weekend in the Hudson Valley and fell in love with the area. That summer, we wound up buying a house just over the Massachusetts border in the Berkshires.
It’s hard to believe, even for me, that truffles sparked this journey, and I’m grateful for everything that’s happened. I never would have imagined it eight years ago. Growing up, I thought I was the unluckiest person in the world. I’ve worked hard, but luck—or fate—has helped me along the way. In the business today, I’m no longer a novelty act, the teenager trying to sell his Tupperware container of truffles.
People don’t call me Truffle Boy anymore.
Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground (Hachette, 2017) is available wherever books are sold.
45-48 37th Street
Long Island City