Regularly digging into the dirt on his grandmother’s farm still didn’t prepare Atlanta-reared Cornelious Robinson for his inaugural truffle hunting excursion in France. About a decade ago, when the co-founder of New York truffle business Trufflin was curating menus and training staff at the likes of the Boom Boom Room atop the Standard, High Line hotel, he met his now-wife, Liv Woudstra-Robinson. Soon after, the couple began making regular visits to her native Provence.
“Before you know it, you’re foraging for truffles on a Saturday in the wild. I had no idea what that would entail,” Robinson, 37, recalls of his first day out with DeeDee, the family’s energetic truffle-hunting dog (she’s named for jazz great Dee Dee Bridgewater ), tracking down and pulling up the hard-to-find subterranean fungi.
“I immediately fell in love with the whole process,” Robinson says. “You start the day with the intent of finding truffles, but you’re not sure that is going to happen, so it makes the days when you do find them—carrying them back to your house, washing them off in the kitchen, the smell permeating through the rooms, imagining how they will taste—even more worth it. I knew we had to get them back to chefs in New York.”
In 2016, armed with a kilo of these fresh, black, French beauties, the couple launched Trufflin as a side gig. They soon sourced truffles for such famed restaurants as Le Bernardin and the Waverly Inn from a collective of south-of-France hunters and farmers.
“We wanted to make this business work, so we put all our money into the dream,” Robinson says. “We had to pound the pavement and consistently bring in good product so that we would be taken seriously. We probably went into [restaurant] Eleven Madison Park for a solid five months before they acknowledged us.”
Trufflin’s offerings now include products like salt, olive oil, and honey. But in 2020, as restaurants began to shutter in droves, orders for imported truffles, Trufflin’s core product, were at a standstill. Even worse, some restaurants were unable to pay Cornelious and Liv the money owed them.
“It was an eye-opener. We realized we could go out of business because of this. At this time, a lot of small food purveyors banded together to understand the magnitude. It was almost like a therapy session,” says Robinson, noting it became clear that, like many other companies, Trufflin needed to immediately shift its focus to online sales. It did, donating 20% of its profits over the first month to the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund.
Condiments had already been introduced to the growing Trufflin range as part of the brand’s efforts to democratize truffles “through products we can relate to and that can create a sense of affordable luxury,” Robinson says. The first two releases, a black truffle-infused ranch dressing and sriracha emphasizing natural ingredients were hits. Even Oprah Winfrey deemed the VIP kit of two bottles one of her favorite things of 2020—so the Robinsons poured all their energy into shoring up this part of the business during the pandemic, including the debut of a black truffle-infused buffalo sauce dubbed Truffalo in late summer.
Currently holed up in France, the couple is experimenting with new condiment flavors at a local manufacturer—that is when they aren’t gushing over their son, who was born in December. “Having a kid grounded us in the midst of all this,” Robinson says. “He gave us a sense of direction.”
A fan of shaving fresh black truffles over pasta or incorporating them into soft scrambled eggs, Cornelious has also found some imaginative ways of using Trufflin’s condiments during the pandemic. Here he shares some of his favorites.
Potato Chips. “Being from the South, when we first created our hot sauce I really wanted it to be most comparable to Texas Pete , because that’s the hot sauce everyone grew up with. It has the perfect amount of tang, sour, and heat. I like to simply drizzle our hot sauce over Ruffles potato chips.”
Lasagna. “We created a chicken lasagna this week with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, and ricotta, but once we sat down in front of the TV and took a bite, we realized it was missing something. We added a little salt and that didn’t work. Then I put on our hot sauce and it was so delicious, not something I would have expected. We powered through this lasagna.”
Brussels Sprouts. “At the Double Crown, the New York restaurant on the Bowery that was there before Saxon + Parole, one of the menu items was crispy Brussels sprouts in sambal. It’s a dish that had so much depth and complexity, and it’s actually the reason I started eating Brussels sprouts. Now I make my own. I char them, toss them in brown sugar, caramelized onions, fish sauce, and add a little bit of rice vinegar. Instead of red chili flakes, I add the sriracha for a little kick of heat without it being too spicy.”
Shrimp Scampi. “We make a classic shrimp scampi with butter, lemon, garlic, and white wine or veggie broth with crushed red pepper. But we also amp it up with sriracha and then serve it over rice.”
Potatoes. “My cousin loves cooking on the grill, and I like to make these potatoes that are based on one of his recipes. I halve and skewer grilled potatoes with olive oil, lemon, and black pepper, and then finish it with our organic Black Truffle Ranch right on top or leave it on the side for dipping.”