1. Realizing that even Wal-Mart has its limits. At 15, Purkayastha’s family moved from cosmopolitan Houston to the small town of Fayetteville, Ark. That kind of move would upset lots of kids, but what bothered Purkayastha — who had been cooking since he was 3 or 4 years old — was Fayetteville’s lack of high-end restaurants and culinary diversity. “The move was a big culture shock,” says Purkayastha, sitting at a stainless steel table in P.A.Q. Gubbio’s Hoboken office. Behind him, one of his officemates — recently brought in from Italy to help with the growth Purkayastha has led — gently unpacks a half-dozen golf-ball-sized white truffles from an airtight container. The scent immediately fills the space — all the way up to the top of the 15-foot-high warehouse ceilings. “Smell that?” Purkayastha asks, grinning. “That’s white truffle. Anyway, you couldn’t eat culturally in Fayetteville. I mean, the highest-end place around to buy food was Wal-Mart.”
To compensate, he started looking for his own food sources, learning from his uncle to forage for wild mushrooms and becoming obsessed with wild foodstuffs. Soon after, on summer vacation back in Houston, he had a black-truffle ravioli with foie gras sauce in a restaurant, and truffles became his new passion.
Problem was, Wal-Mart doesn’t sell fresh truffles. For that, Purkayastha had to find an exporter in Europe and put up a good chunk of his savings to get a supply of the magical underground fungi directly. The idea was not entrepreneurial but practical: He planned to cook with a portion of the truffles and sell the rest to offset their purchase price. In the process, however, Purkayastha had stumbled upon a brilliant business model. Restaurants don’t generally buy truffles directly from top European exporters; most can’t sell enough truffles to make the investment worthwhile. They also can’t take the risk of the truffles spoiling. Whites can turn just a few days after they’re dug up. Blacks have a slightly longer shelf life, but suppose a shipment gets held up in customs and spoils there? Only a salesperson would take that gamble. Or a saleskid.
“I definitely got some chefs who’d look at me and say, ‘What are you doing in my kitchen? Shouldn’t you be in school?’ ” says Purkayastha, whose parents would drive him as far as Austin for sales calls. “But once I started to make the sales pitch and show them the truffles, well, the truffles really spoke for themselves. With a high-quality product to sell, no one really cared how old I was.”