Episode 733: A Trunk Full of Truffles : Planet Money Truffles are a lumpy, smelly fungus. They're also one of the most coveted foods in the world. Why are they so expensive? And why are people willing to pay so much for them?
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Episode 733: A Trunk Full of Truffles

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Episode 733: A Trunk Full of Truffles

Episode 733: A Trunk Full of Truffles

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Ian Purkayastha tasted his first truffle when he is 15 years old. He was out at a fancy restaurant with a friend's family.

IAN PURKAYASTHA: The server came over and said, OK, we have a special for tonight, and it's a black truffle ravioli with a foie gras sauce, and it was music to my ears.


So I should explain why a 15-year-old boy was this excited by black truffle ravioli. Ian's family had moved to the country, and Ian had started learning to forage for mushrooms. And for foragers, truffles are almost mythical. They're really hard to find. They grow underground. They are only found in the wild. Nobody has ever figured out how to cultivate them.

PASHMAN: And nobody has figured out how to make anything else taste or smell quite like that. There's only one thing that tastes and smells like a truffle.

VANEK SMITH: And of course truffles are ridiculously expensive.

PASHMAN: Ridiculously.

VANEK SMITH: Ian ordered the truffle dish.

PURKAYASTHA: You know, it arrived. It was steaming. It was - it was amazing. There were shavings of truffle on the top. If you cut one of the ravioli in half, there were chunks of black truffle in the ravioli. I mean, it was - it was earthy. It was nutty. It was mysterious. I mean, it was - it was this unknown flavor that I had never tasted. That was it. I mean, it was like such a revelatory experience. You know, I can't ever remember, like, you know, where I parked the car yesterday. But yet, I remember everything about this moment. It was to this day the best dish I've ever had in my life.

PASHMAN: Ian became obsessed. He took all his savings and used it to buy a kilo of truffles on an Italian website. But then when they arrived, he realized he had bought way too much, so he took the extra and tried to sell it to restaurants in town.

PURKAYASTHA: I showed up on the doorstep with this bag of truffles and a scale I had bought at Target and an invoice book from Staples, and I said, hi, I'm Ian. I have some truffles. Would you be interested in buying some truffles? And I don't know if it was the novelty of this, you know, bucktooth 15-year-old kid walking in the door with a bag full of truffles. But I sold them and I made a profit.

VANEK SMITH: And that moment is why we are standing in a walk-in refrigerator in Queens at 11 o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday cracking open a shipment of white truffles that Ian has just flown in from Italy.

So how much money is in this box?

PURKAYASTHA: I don't know - $20,000?

VANEK SMITH: There's $20,000 in this styrofoam box.

PURKAYASTHA: Yes (laughter).

PASHMAN: Twenty thousand dollars - that's about eight pounds of truffles. And Ian's going to sell all eight pounds by 5 p.m. today. That's when restaurants start their dinner rush. Also truffles don't keep.


PASHMAN: Hi, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Dan Pashman.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, we follow Ian as he hustles his way through some of the finest kitchens in New York selling truffles.

PASHMAN: We battle traffic, parking cops, smugglers, penny-pinching chefs and the cruel mistress of time.

VANEK SMITH: Also we try to figure out what it is about truffles that makes people pay so much for them.


VANEK SMITH: Before Ian can go and sell these truffles, he has to make sure that they look OK. He cuts open the box, which is covered with U.S. customs stickers.

PASHMAN: What is this moment like for you, Ian?

PURKAYASTHA: Pure anxiety honestly.

PASHMAN: That's because so many things can go wrong between the time the truffles come out of the ground in Italy and the time Ian gets them in Queens. They could get stolen. They could be left on an airport tarmac. The airline maybe doesn't refrigerate them properly. They could even have bugs.

VANEK SMITH: The truffles have already been on this amazing journey. I mean, two days ago, these were underground in a forest in Tuscany. And they were found using dogs, dogs that are trained to sniff them out.

PURKAYASTHA: I'm just removing all the ice packs from the top of the box.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, is that the smell?

PURKAYASTHA: That is the smell.

VANEK SMITH: What do you think?

PASHMAN: Oh, my God, that smell.

VANEK SMITH: It's not good.

PURKAYASTHA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It's like...


VANEK SMITH: ...Burnt something. It's, like, burnt.

PASHMAN: To me, it's like mushrooms combined with dirty socks in a good way.

VANEK SMITH: What is dirty socks in a good way mean?

PASHMAN: Ian takes out a truffle. He holds it up to the light, smells it. It's kind of round and lumpy. It's sort of golden white. It almost looks like a Yukon Gold potato.

PURKAYASTHA: This one is very nice.

PASHMAN: Ian looks really relieved because he's banking on these truffles for his business, Regalis Foods.

VANEK SMITH: White truffles are only in season for about 12 weeks. And during that time, Ian makes most of his money for the year.

PASHMAN: Ian puts the truffles into a dented styrofoam cooler covered with packing tape, loads them into the trunk of his car and we're off.

PURKAYASTHA: All right, are you guys ready?

PASHMAN: Let's do it.


VANEK SMITH: Ian needs to sell these $20,000 worth of truffles by 5 p.m. because that is when restaurants start gearing up for dinner.

PASHMAN: Yeah, and if he doesn't do it, he's in trouble because literally every second that passes, the truffles are losing value.

VANEK SMITH: Right because truffles are mostly water. And every moment that they are out of the ground, they are losing water. They're drying up.

PASHMAN: So it's like with every red light that we hit, a few pennies fall out of your pocket.

PURKAYASTHA: Pretty much.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

PURKAYASTHA: I would say I lose about 3 percent a day. So if we do the math, I'm probably going to lose about $1,500 today just in evaporation loss.

VANEK SMITH: Just in the trunk.

PURKAYASTHA: In the trunk.

VANEK SMITH: Do you think about that when you're sitting in traffic?

PURKAYASTHA: I mean, I've learned not to view.

PASHMAN: A few red lights later, we arrive at Piora in the West Village. It's noon.

PURKAYASTHA: I'm just going to...

VANEK SMITH: Are we backing down a one-way street?

PURKAYASTHA: ...Illegally back in - yeah. I'm going to back down the street. This guy is giving us the stink eye.

VANEK SMITH: So you're parking, like, in a red zone right now?

PURKAYASTHA: I'm in a red zone.

PASHMAN: How much money do you budget per year in parking tickets?

PURKAYASTHA: It's probably $10,000.

VANEK SMITH: Ten thousand dollars a year in parking tickets - really?


VANEK SMITH: You just park wherever you - you just got to park. The truffles will not wait.

PURKAYASTHA: They can't wait.

PASHMAN: Ian jumps out of the car, grabbed the styrofoam cooler, balances his scale on top of it, and we rush in to the restaurant.

PURKAYASTHA: All right, let's make it quick.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, truffle man.

PURKAYASTHA: How are you?

VANEK SMITH: Piora is this really romantic, kind of airy restaurant, and the chef, Christopher Cipollone, meets us in the kitchen.

PASHMAN: Ian's unwrapping the cooler right now. What are you thinking at this moment, Chef, as he unwraps? What's going through your mind?

CHRISTOPHER CIPOLLONE: I'm pretty excited. I'm always excited by what Ian brings me.

PASHMAN: Chef Chris starts poking through the cooler, looking through the truffles.

CIPOLLONE: These are actually gorgeous. And we've been doing quite well with the truffles, my friend, so we're doing a simple handmade ricotta strascinati. And we just glaze it in butter and pasta water and then just shave the truffles table side.

VANEK SMITH: How much is the dish?

CIPOLLONE: The dish is only $85. It's a steal.

VANEK SMITH: Dan, this blew my mind. I mean, think about it. This is, like, pasta and butter, which is basically what you feed a child who has the stomach flu. I mean, it is some of the cheapest food you can get anywhere. And Chef Chris is charging $85 for a plate of buttered pasta.

PASHMAN: Well, buttered pasta with truffles on top.


PASHMAN: And there is some logic to it because the idea is you want something kind of simple so that all the focus is on the truffles, you know? Like, you don't - you don't hang the "Mona Lisa" on a plaid wall, right? You put her on a white wall a big spotlight on it, and pasta with butter is the culinary equivalent of a white wall.

CIPOLLONE: (Laughter).

PASHMAN: And how many grams of truffles go into that?


VANEK SMITH: Five grams is the weight of a nickel. That is how expensive truffles are. For that amount, Chef Chris is paying Ian about $25, and he's charging his diners about $85. That is a $60 markup.

PASHMAN: That's a powerful food right there.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, it is. And Chef Chris says people are happy to pay this amount because truffles are special. You can't get them all the time. Most places don't have them, and they're just excited to have this experience.

Do you have customers come in especially because they want truffles?

CIPOLLONE: Yes, definitely. Every year, we - people kind of love to see what we are doing with truffles this year and what kind of preparations we're doing.

PASHMAN: Chef Chris buys just under a half-pound of truffles, which is, I mean, just a few truffles, the - each one the size of a racketball. We peeked over at the bill.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of money for truffles - $967.

CIPOLLONE: It'll be gone in a couple days. It's all good.

VANEK SMITH: Those few truffles will make about 40 plates of pasta, and the profit from those plates of pasta will be more than $2,000.

PASHMAN: So this whole time that we're talking to Chef Chris, Ian is texting madly on his phone, glancing toward the door every few minutes, you know, tapping his toe on the floor. He hasn't even sold a pound of truffles yet. And we've got four and a half hours to go until the restaurants start dinner service.

Ian packs up the truffles, and we're off.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wow, in and out. You guys are efficient.

PURKAYASTHA: Yeah, totally.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See you guys soon.

VANEK SMITH: Bye. And...

PURKAYASTHA: And no ticket.

VANEK SMITH: No ticket.

PASHMAN: The next deal went down literally on a street corner. Ian pulls over, private chef of a wealthy family comes out. They pop the trunk. She goes through the truffles, and within a couple minutes, another sale.

VANEK SMITH: How'd it go?

PURKAYASTHA: Good. That's over 4,000 sold.

VANEK SMITH: Four thousand dollars?


PURKAYASTHA: Between the private chef and Piora, Ian has sold $5,000 worth of truffles, but he still has $15,000 more to sell. So we drive to the house of a hedge fund billionaire. Ian jumps out of the car, sells him a pound of truffles.

PASHMAN: Yeah, I guess, you know, he's got to put it in his coffee or something. You need that.


PASHMAN: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: By now, it is 1:30. And the dinner rush starts in three and a half hours.

PURKAYASTHA: Almost there.

VANEK SMITH: So how are we doing so far clockwise?

PURKAYASTHA: We're a little behind.

PASHMAN: The whole time we're with Ian, he is just in the zone. I mean, he's texting. He's driving. He's making deals on the phone and in person. The guy just has so much focus, and he's only 24 years old, which I think, Stacey, reminded both of us that we are total failures.

VANEK SMITH: Also old.

PASHMAN: (Laughter) Yes.

VANEK SMITH: But Ian's been doing this a long time. He came to New York when he was 18 years old. And at the time, he bought a minivan and he would load it up every day with truffles and fresh mushrooms.

PURKAYASTHA: And I would drive around to restaurants and beg chefs to come out to the van and take a look at what was inside my van. I was working 16-hour days, like, hustling and, you know, I had so much stress, I was losing hair and I had this weird, like, acne, like, flare up. And I was embarrassed to, like, go outside, and I would just make an entire vat of macaroni and cheese and basically just, like, watch Netflix and, like, cry myself to sleep on weekends, and it sucked.

VANEK SMITH: Things are much better for Ian these days. In fact, this year, he is on track to make $6 million in sales.

PASHMAN: And the whole time we're driving around with him, I was just so struck by the contrast between those huge dollar figures that we keep seeing and hearing and just the ragtag nature of the operation itself. I mean, he's got these styrofoam coolers in the back of a rental car because the other car broke down. He's 24 years old, sort of unshaven and looking somewhat sleep deprived. And so he has, like, more in common it seems with a mid-level weed dealer than a luxury food titan. But that's what he is. I mean, he just signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Williams-Sonoma to sell truffle salt and truffle oil.

VANEK SMITH: But Ian told us he is never going to stop doing this fresh truffle hustle. It is the centerpiece of his business. It's how he makes most of his money, and it's how he keeps up his relationships with the best chefs in New York, relationships that he made when he started selling mushrooms out of his minivan. In fact, one of his first customers, who used to buy things out of his minivan, is where we are headed next. That is Lure Fishbar, and the chef is a guy named Josh Capon.

PURKAYASTHA: And this is one chef that loves to bargain (laughter).

PASHMAN: So what's your strategy going in in a situation like this?

PURKAYASTHA: Maybe start a little high, see what he says.

VANEK SMITH: All right, we're double-parked. We're going in.

PASHMAN: All right, fingers crossed no tickets.

The restaurant's packed. It's the middle of the lunch rush, so we wait a little while for the chef to come out. Ian sets down his cooler. He's still texting, texting, texting, and then finally the kitchen doors open and the chef comes out.

PURKAYASTHA: Hey, Josh. How are you?

JOSH CAPON: What's up, buddy?

My name - my name is Josh Capon. We are here at the legendary Lure Fishbar with my good, good buddy Ian. Ian is actually in my phone as Ian truffle boy.

PASHMAN: Chef Josh starts inspecting the truffles.

CAPON: Well, it's always a pleasure to see him and what exciting and beautiful and in this case gorgeous-smelling white truffles from Demonte - Tuscany - Tuscany, one of the truest beautiful pleasures of the world. And I went there on my honeymoon. I stayed in a castle. It was stupendous. And just smelling these white truffles, I'm transported back to that castle with my wife where we drank champagne with fresh peaches off the trees and made love in the forest together amongst the hogs. Is this for radio or TV?


PASHMAN: If it was for TV, I think that the screen just went dark.

VANEK SMITH: I think we just went NC-17.

PASHMAN: (Laughter) Totally. So Chef Josh picks out a few truffles and piles them on Ian's little kitchen scale, and then they both start punching numbers into their own calculators on their phones.

CAPON: I say we knock this number down to $1,200 even.

PURKAYASTHA: All right, we'll do it. We'll do it.

CAPON: One thousand dollars even.

PURKAYASTHA: I can't do $1,000.

CAPON: Come on, $1,100.

PURKAYASTHA: I can't (laughter).

CAPON: At the same time, look at that - look at that. Ladies and gentlemen, $14 just came off the bill - amazing.

VANEK SMITH: Chef Josh buys five truffles for $1,200.

PASHMAN: Yeah, and they just - they fit in his two hands.

VANEK SMITH: Chef Josh tells us he plans to serve them on a lobster risotto later tonight and on this special cheeseburger that he makes at the burger place across the street. It is a $68 cheeseburger, which he says has gotten quite a reputation.

CAPON: You got to - just come have the white truffle burger at Burger & Barrel. It'll literally blow your mind.

VANEK SMITH: We rush back to the car. Ian still has about $1,200 worth of truffles left to sell, and it's 2:30.

PASHMAN: Our next stop is Minetta Tavern. It's a well-known, pretty high-end place in the West Village. The chef is Dan Silverman. He's a tall, kind of reserved guy. He says he's been seeing a lot of truffle dealers around lately.

VANEK SMITH: Are there a lot of people who sell truffles around?

DAN SILVERMAN: Oh, my God. Yeah, there are. This time of year, people just - yeah - people just wandering off the street with, like, checkered cloth bundles full of truffles. There's just, like, random people always every year.

PURKAYASTHA: They smuggle them, yeah.

SILVERMAN: Probably. I like to buy from the people that I know.

PASHMAN: And here's the thing - there are Ians all over New York City right now. You could be passing one on the street right now with a backpack full of 20-grand worth of truffles. And some of these people are from other companies, but a lot of them are just hustlers. They're walking from one restaurant to another with a backpack full of truffles that they smuggled from Europe.

VANEK SMITH: And you could see why they would do this. I mean, one truffle can cost a thousand dollars, and you can fit a lot of truffles into a suitcase. When we get back in the car, Ian tells us, yeah, there are a lot of truffle smugglers in New York right now, and they've really hurt his business.

PASHMAN: They cut out the middleman, they don't pay customs fees, and they've cut his profits in half. Ian says he used to make 20 percent profit on truffles; now, more like 10 percent.

PURKAYASTHA: Ritzy restaurants like the - you know, two and three Michelin starred restaurants are the ones that love to negotiate because they're getting so many - so many different truffle people in the door trying to sell them product that they have - they have a choice of who they buy from.

PASHMAN: At this point, it's 3:30 and Ian's got to leave us. He's got 90 minutes left to unload, like, $10,000 worth of truffles and, let's face it, Stacey, we were slowing him down.

VANEK SMITH: So Ian drops us off in SoHo, and at this point, we are both starving, and we both smell like dirty socks.

PASHMAN: In a good way, Stacey, in a good way.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I'll take your word for it.


VANEK SMITH: And, I mean, we've been watching thousands of dollars change hand for these truffles, and I still have never tried one. I have no idea what the fuss is all about.

PASHMAN: That's right, Stacey, and because we're consummate journalists, we head to Burger & Barrel to try Chef Josh Capon's $68 truffle burger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is the third week that we've been getting in white truffles, and in honor of that, we're doing our famous white truffle burger. I highly recommend it.

VANEK SMITH: I would like to order that.

PASHMAN: Our burgers arrive, and they are beautiful. The truffles are sliced thin and fanned out over the top of the burger so you can see them - five grams, apparently, worth of truffles. We took our bites.

VANEK SMITH: OK, this is it. This is the big moment.

PASHMAN: I'm going in.

VANEK SMITH: I don't know how to describe it. It's like shoes. It tastes like shoes - smoked shoes.

PASHMAN: I told you, dirty - dirty socks in a good way.



VANEK SMITH: It came back around.


VANEK SMITH: Dirty socks in a good way.


VANEK SMITH: It does taste like dirty socks in a good way. It's the best description.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: And I'm sorry I doubted you.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).


PASHMAN: All right.


PASHMAN: See, Stacey, what'd I tell you? Dirty socks in a good way.

VANEK SMITH: Dirty socks in a good way. We actually called up some food scientists to figure out what this dirty sock thing was. Like, what is it about this flavor that captivates people so much, that changed Ian's life? And it turns out that that truffle smell and taste comes from this molecule called androstenone, and it is found in sweat and urine.

PASHMAN: Yeah. Farmers will spray female pigs with androstenone to get them in the mood, which is hot.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

PASHMAN: And, you know, I think I get it. I mean, I know why humans are obsessed with truffles. It's because they kind of smell like us.

VANEK SMITH: We are eating humanity. The thing that we most want from the finest, fussiest restaurants in the world is sweat, sex and urine. That is why we love truffles so much.

PASHMAN: You'd think it'd be easier to replicate.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) And cheaper.

PASHMAN: Yeah, totally. But I do think there's also something about this high-low combination with the way the restaurants get the food. It's, like, one of their finest, most desired ingredients, and they're getting it in this sort of sketchy, back alley kind of way.

VANEK SMITH: Right, people wandering in off the street with napkins full of truffles or styrofoam coolers. Speaking of which, we checked back in with Ian to see how the rest of his day had gone.

PASHMAN: Yeah, and he probably should've kept us around a little bit longer because we were his good luck charm, and after he left us, his car got towed.

VANEK SMITH: With $5,000 worth of truffles in the trunk.

PASHMAN: Right, which is like your car getting towed with $5,000 worth of cash in the trunk.

VANEK SMITH: Cash that is disintegrating.

PASHMAN: Right, right.

VANEK SMITH: But this is where all of Ian's calls and texting that he'd been doing all day paid off because he'd actually been taking orders from chefs all over the country for any leftover truffles he might have. So as soon as he got his car out of the impound lot, he sped to the FedEx office at JFK Airport.

PASHMAN: And in Ian's world, this is a buzzer beater because there in the parking lot, he packed up the truffles and got them sent out just before the final FedEx deadline, which means that if you recently ate truffles in Chicago or LA or San Francisco, it's quite possible that they were packed up in the trunk of Ian's car.


VANEK SMITH: Dan, I had so much fun reporting this story with you, and you do stuff like this all the time on your podcast, The Sporkful.

PASHMAN: Yeah, so The Sporkful is a podcast where we obsess about food to learn more about people. One of our recent shows was all about a food called pork roll, also known as Taylor ham. It's an iconic food in New Jersey where people there have been fighting about it for 150 years. So we find out why.

VANEK SMITH: And if you want some light reading, Ian actually has a book coming out. It is called "Truffle Boy." It comes out in February, and you can pre-order it now. It's all about his business hustling truffles all over New York.

PASHMAN: We also want to thank Helen Hollyman from the website Munchies who introduced us to Ian and smell scientist Avery Gilbert.

VANEK SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of the show. You can send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org - or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Today's episode was produced by the wonderful Elizabeth Kulas. And as we are ramping up to this big presidential election, check out the NPR POLITICS podcast. They have new episodes coming out every day taking a look at this big moment for our country. You can find that on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

PASHMAN: And I'm Dan Pashman. Thanks for listening.

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