Forbidden Fruit: NYC's Truffle Merchants Sell Their Exotic Wares Door-to-Door
To sell her goods in midtown, Elodie Persehaie enters through a hidden elevator that opens into the kitchen at Clement, the Peninsula Hotel's swanky new restaurant. It's around 2 o'clock on a cold October afternoon, and lunch is winding down. It's her second or third stop today.
A few days a week, Persehaie walks the city with a cooler full of forbidden fruit. She's the sales and marketing manager for Gourmet Attitude, a truffle merchant that imports fungus from France and Italy and sells them to chefs at restaurants including Daniel, Per Se, and Masa, through the back doors of kitchens. Gourmet Attitude ships to out-of-town clients such as the French Laundry and Alinea, but in New York, Persehaie and company founder Céline Labaune deliver their product by hand.
In taxis from one client to another, Persehaie opens a window to let the smell out. "I get embarrassed when I'm going places in the subway or in a cab," she says. "The drivers will ask me, 'What do you have in your bag?' So I just open the windows. You cannot really say what you're doing."
Her bag is worth thousands, and her rarefied cargo, as Grubstreet recently reported, has spawned every imaginable greed: muggings, forgeries, tax evasions, even puppycide. So if you're trucking around town with a boodle of truffles, better keep it quiet.
But not today. At the Peninsula, when Persehaie enters the kitchen, she's greeted with kisses by a handsome man in a suit and tie. He whisks her through a corridor into the private dining room, a twinkling affair set with silver and stemware. Chef Brandon Kida sits at the table chatting with Alan "Battman" Batt of Chef's Connection, who stopped by to deliver his new cookbook. When Persehaie joins him, they spend 15 minutes discussing where to live in New York before Kida turns to Persehaie: "Let's get down to business."
Persehaie: "Do you spend this much time with all your suppliers?" she asks.
"No," Kida says, "just you."
"Not even the caviar people?"
"No." With caviar, Kida explains, there's one tasting, and after that, someone delivers tiny jars of eggs as needed. In contrast, truffles must be touched, smelled, mulled over.
Persehaie opens her cooler. She pulls out little parcels, loosely wrapped in tissue paper, unwraps the white truffles, and lays them on the table. The room floods with their scent: a heavy odor, not unlike the pheromonal stench of a lover, or at least his dirty socks. All unwrapped, we're looking at about $5,000.
Kida puts one to his nose, inhales deeply. "They're getting stronger, right?" Persehaie nods. Early truffles, in September and October, grow close to the soil surface; the dogs and pigs hunters use to find them can smell them easily. Later on, they're deeper and need a stronger scent to be found. By now, the truffles are so fragrant that the transaction usually takes place behind closed doors so as not to disturb the adjacent dining room.
But today, the door is open. Waiters in waistcoats wander in for a look. Kida smiles and looks at Battman and me: "See? It traps people. They're like fish, swimming into our gill net."
The chef examines each fruit and places a few on Persehaie's scale. "They have to have a good shape and size," he says, for easy tableside shaving. But he's also looking for the right flavor, and each one is different.
Another day, Labaune says she carefully matches each truffle to its buyer. "Every truffle I send out, I see it, I touch it, I smell it. Because each client has different requirements."
Labuane and Persehaie, both originally from France, have worked together for five years. They make regular kitchen calls, and most of their business takes place at express speed. Labaune's suppliers dig truffles on the weekend and ship them to New York. They arrive Monday or Tuesday, and Labaune re-ships or delivers them the same day.
Alba white truffles have a shelf life of five days, maybe six, so everyone scrambles to get them from field to kitchen. At the Peninsula, Persehaie says the pressure to sell is stressful. "I have to sell them. If I don't sell them by tomorrow night, it's a waste, and it's very expensive."
Gourmet Attitude also sells black winter truffles from France, which come into season around Thanksgiving. Labaune has family connections to truffle-producing regions Périgord and Provence; she found her main producer through friends. His farm is high in the hills above Grignan, near the truffle market in Richerenches, an old fortified town and 12th-century home to the Knights Templar. "If it snows, you can't get there. It's far away from civilization," Labaune says. The family has cultivated truffles since phylloxera wiped out their grapevines in the late 1800s; rather than re-seed the vines, they planted truffle trees instead.
Truffles grow symbiotically with the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. With a little luck, a farmer can expose a sapling's roots to black truffle spores and plant it in a truffière (truffle orchard), where it will grow for years before it is ready to start producing truffles. If it works, a good truffle tree will fruit for 40 years or more.
Labaune says she enjoys the pared-down nature of the business. "It happens in secluded places, the opposite of industry, of big factories," she says. It's also beholden to nature's whims: one of the few things the Masters of the Universe cannot control, no matter how much money they throw at it.
This year, truffles are abundant and comparatively cheap, but in bad years, when they're struggling to bloom, demand remains constant, so the price skyrockets. What's more, the ones that do grow are stunted and weak, so buyers end up paying ridiculous sums for low-quality truffles. This happened in 2012, and the price topped out around $5,000 per pound.
When we meet, at the height of an extraordinary season, Labaune is worried about weather in Europe. "The past few days, it's rained a lot," she says. "People are afraid the truffles will be damaged."
So it's also important to be sure your producer, an ocean away, is trustworthy. "You need to know you're dealing with someone who will tell you the situation," Labaune says. "Like, it's been raining, it's been sunny, the price is high, the price is low, there are worms. . . . If you have someone who is always like, 'Oh, it's great,' forget about it."
Labaune's chain of trust links to her chefs, too. I first met Persehaie at the Waverly Inn, where I worked for a time, and where she made regular visits with truffles for the $125 truffle mac and cheese. Other purveyors would come around, and sometimes then-chef Eric Korsh would buy from them, but usually he'd wave them off; though their sales reps always assured him of the truffles' quality, after one smell of their wares, Korsh would immediately call Labaune.
Especially with the white truffle, cheap fungus is never the best fungus. "You know, the aroma isn't there, maybe they're not fresh, or they didn't come from the north of Italy; they came from southern Italy, or even Eastern Europe," Labaune says. "There's a lot of BS, because you can make so much money."
But in a recent conversation, chef Michael White (of Ai Fiori, Marea, and others), said when a truffle arrives in the kitchen, the money trail ends. "This is not about a chef making money," he says. "You do not sell white truffles to make money, OK? You're providing a service to the customer. It's about making people go, 'Aaaaah.'"
White loves truffles and says they're his favorite fall ingredient. When we spoke, he was reveling in the harvest: "When truffles are reasonably priced, it's just a joyous season. So many times, they become unattainable, even for chefs. They're so pricey, it takes all the fun away. . . . Anytime you get something that's $3,500 a pound, it gets kind of dicey, no pun intended. When they're around $2,000, just let them roll, right?"
Truffles are also prized for their flexibility. At Clement, Kida says he'll shave them on anything. "It's not one of those flavors that works against you," he says. "It's always working for you."
So when truffles are in, and especially when they're great, like they are this year, it's a jubilant thing.
This joy hits at the very core of why we care about cooking great food. It can evoke pleasure so deep it distills experience into a moment where everything lives within that bite.
And each truffle is a different world unto itself: the terroir of the place it grew, a reflection of the season, and even geologic history. Within it are the hands it's passed through, people who have nurtured it, hunted it, coveted it with a golem's verve, and paid vast sums of money to bring it to the plate. And all for a simple instant of sublime taste that depends wholly on the chemistry of their devourer.
So when I ask Labaune if she could tell the world just one thing about truffles, she says this: "Try it! Close your eyes, and try to describe the taste and the aroma. Because it's very different for each person. That's what I would say."
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