We caught up with our friend and collaborator for our new Wild Sweet Clover flavor, Ian Purkayastha of Regalis Foods, to ask him some questions about how he began foraging. Let’s just say he earned the nickname “Truffle Boy” in a far more desirable way than doing the Truffle Shuffle from the Goonies.
1. Tell us about your history in the food industry. What drew you to food, per se?
My mother and grandfather are responsible for my love of food. I grew up in Houston with an immigrant Indian father and a strong white-bread Texan mother. We were always surrounded by good food. If we weren’t scouting the newest and greatest dive, we were cooking. My grandparents lived an hour outside of the city and had a monstrous garden. My grandfather was obsessed with ingredients and more than anything, a variety of produce. He always loved growing the rare and heirloom varietals. He had a culinary wonderland in his backyard consisting of several high powered burners for firing up cast iron works in one area and in another he built a woodburning brick oven as well as a whole hog bbq smoker from scrap metal. We were always cooking.
My grandparents had built a cabin in the late ’80s in the Ozark Hills of Arkansas. As kids, we would spend summers there and my uncle and his family lived nearby. My parents were entrepreneurs and during the 2008 housing crisis lost almost everything. We decided on moving to Arkansas in pursuit of a simpler, more frugal life. I was 15 and it was a culture shock.
It was hard making friends initially and I spent a lot of time in the outdoors with my uncle Jared. He was an archeologist and an avid forager. He was responsible for showing me how to forage for wild mushrooms. We started with morels, then chanterelles and black trumpets. I became totally obsessed.
I had always wanted to taste a truffle, as they are regarded as the King of all mushrooms. On a visiting trip to Houston to see old friends, I was invited to a swanky restaurant and was told that I could order anything on the menu. I was treated to a Black Truffle Ravioli with a foie gras sauce. It was life-changing, literally. It was such a new and mysteriously seductive flavor that when I returned to Arkansas I begged my parents to buy me a truffle to cook with. I wanted to re-create the ravioli. They flat out refused and over a period of 6 months, I frantically researched as much as I could online and at the library on the world of truffles, their origins, and the chefs that used them.
I finally had enough and pooled together Christmas and birthday savings from several years to finance an order of a kilo of Black Summer Truffles from Europe. I had found a French truffle forager on the French version of eBay willing to FedEx me my order. It took several days to arrive and when they did, I realized I had over-ordered. I reserved two truffles to cook with and the rest I decided to sell. I cold-called the three fine dining restaurants in town and on my way picked up a kitchen scale at Target and an invoice pad. My father drove me. I walked up to the hostesses, asked for the chefs, and showed them my wares. Somehow, I managed to sell them all, turned a large profit, and it was such an adrenalin rush that I re-invested everything back into my second order.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KRISTIN GLADNEY / WIEDEN+KENNEDY
I continued with this model for a year. My parents would take turns driving me from city to city in a tri-state area and I would cold call hundreds of restaurants. This was my official start into the industry. In my senior year of high school, I was hired by an Italian company looking for U.S. representation. They were willing to finance the truffles if I found the customers and handled shipments on a national level. I would make sales in between classes and after school would drive to my local airport to collect shipments that I was importing from the Italian office outside of Rome. After high school, I told my parents I was deferring college to move to New York and strike it big in the truffle industry.
With the profits my Italian partner made from my first year of sales, the rented a small office for me in Newark above a methadone clinic. I had no sales, and no customers, and ended up getting beaten up and robbed my third day outside of the office. I worked for the Italian company for another two years finding customers and creating a client base then had a falling out when I wasn’t being paid my commissions. The reasoning was that I was making more money on commission than their much older salaried employees in Italy. I realized my future at the company was going to be short-lived and ultimately found investors to launch my own company, Regalis.
I launched Regalis in 2012 with a focus on truffles, caviar, wild mushrooms, and wild foraged greens. Things are were bleak for the first couple years and I never saw eye to eye with my partners. Ultimately I bought them out and brought on a partner whom I had sold products to in Chicago. A husband and wife duo who had just sold their specialty foods company and were looking for new opportunities. We struck a fantastic relationship and together have built Regalis to what it is today.
We now have warehouses in New York, Chicago, and Dallas, and ship nationwide servicing around 95% of the Michelin starred restaurant community.
2. “Truffle Boy”. Explain.
In 2016 I was approached to write a book about my initial start into the industry and in 2017 I published “Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey through the Exotic Food Underground” with Hachette Books. It was whirlwind but I was super fortunate to have strong support from my chef friends and customers.
3. Ice cream. What images, stories or thoughts come to mind?
I’ve always loved ice cream and actually, my favorite truffle application is shaved over plain vanilla. When I was a kid, my grandfather showed us how to make ice cream with two metal coffee cans. My brother and I would make a base, often Mexican vanilla, pack the smaller can into the larger can with rock salt and ice and roll it back and forth between the two of us for an hour. This was a monthly ritual.
4. What does the word “partnership” mean to you?
I love meeting like-minded producers who share a similar passion for incredible ingredients. Even though the ingredients are often different, the day to day struggles and endgame are always near identical to my own. I love the McConnell’s story and I’ve always loved the ice cream. Being able to create a joint ice cream collaboration with wild-foraged product has always been a dream, and I’m in love with the new Sweet Clover Ice Cream! It turned out amazing.
5. You’ve tasted the ice cream. What’re your thoughts?
Last year we started working with Wild Foraged Sweet Clover. Each flower is picked by hand and air dried. Then we macerate in alcohol to create a highly potent extract. Sweet clover is an incredible ingredient as it has the same coumarin molecule found in vanilla and cinnamon. The resulting flavor is somewhere between vanilla, cinnamon, and hay. I think the ice cream came out wonderfully.