Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground
At age 18, Ian Purkayastha moved to New York City from Arkansas to pursue his dream of selling truffles to top Michelin-starred restaurants. On his first day, with $10,000 of truffles in a rolling ice chest, he made cold calls to restaurants including Per Se, Le Bernardin and Momofuku. He didn’t sell a single truffle. On his way home to New Jersey, he was mugged, and the truffles ended up spilling onto the street and into the gutter. Eventually, he founded Regalis, a purveyor of rare foraged foods, and would sell his wares to the same restaurants that spurned him, as well as many others. Along the way, Purkayastha discovered that Italian truffle wholesalers were sourcing much of their harvest from Eastern Europe and that the truffle harvest has crashed from over 1,000 tons per year in 1900 to less than 50 tons per year today. “Truffle Boy” is also an entrepreneur’s story: waiting in line at Newark for truffle shipments along with the funeral directors picking up corpses packed in ice in large Styrofoam containers; tangling with double-dealing middlemen; and the travails of managing his financial partners. My favorite detail? His Italian truffle supplier asked him to accept a spice-peddling roommate who was “plump, lavishly bearded and notable for his turmeric-yellow teeth and his uniform of sweat-stained Metallica T-shirts.” Anything is better than those little-town blues.
Lidia Bastianich is a marvelous cook—and also something of an enigma. She has a grandmotherly on-air persona but is one of the best businesspeople I have ever met. Oh, and she is tireless. Perhaps that comes from her upbringing in Istria (annexed to Yugoslavia under Tito in 1947), which combined the sublime with the oppression of a communist regime. Life on her grandparents’ farm was peaceful: sleeping on fragrant corn-husk mattresses, carrying piglets in special baskets in a horse-drawn cart, breakfasts of bread schmeared with jam made from fallen figs. Nothing was wasted: Even a pig’s bladder was turned into a soccer ball (a moment in the book that one easily imagines on the big screen). But darkness lurked just beneath the surface. Her father was jailed briefly, and her mother, a teacher, was suspected as an intellectual. They fled to Trieste, living as refugees for two years. Here, her idyllic childhood ended, and she started to gain the fortitude and drive that would become the hallmarks of her career. The family emigrated to the States and ended up in Astoria, Queens, where her mother often cried in her bedroom at night, missing the old country. From working in a bakery to the opening of Felidia, where she met Julia Child and James Beard, Bastianich has never stopped growing and evolving. Today, she still owns her grandmother’s property and goes back to reconnect with those happy days. She told me that “it looks smaller now,” as childhood places always do, but I suspect those days still loom large in her memory.
My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food
Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption
Ed Levine, the founder of food blog Serious Eats, would make a fabulous toastmaster, worldly bon vivant that he is. He grew up with “communists”—his mother considered cooking counterrevolutionary—in a family of six where “the only way to claim the floor at dinner was to scream. Partly because our modest split-level suburban home…was directly under the flight path for Idlewild Airport.” He started his career as a food writer by eating 1,000 pizzas for his 2005 book, “A Slice of Heaven” (dismissing Chicago pizza as a “good casserole”). After launching Serious Eats in 2006, he was quickly immersed in the ruthless world of startup financing. With a modest launch investment, he spent the next seven years living hand-to-mouth, begging funds, putting his house on the line and finally selling the enterprise in 2015 for just enough to mostly pay back his investors. Along the way, now-famous foodies such as J. Kenji López-Alt worked for pennies, and Serious Eats became a serious voice in the culinary world. After the sale, he felt as if he had put the family up for adoption, but he also got to exhale after years of living on the edge. It’s always great to be an entrepreneur after the successful buyout—it’s just the startup that’s hard