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Two men looking for truffles
May 07, 2018

A fun guy and his fungi

Jack Czarnecki ’68 hunts for a prized ingredient
by Jane Dornbusch

You might think you’ve tried truffle oil—sprinkled over fancy French fries, perhaps, or adorning a trendy pizza. But chances are you’re wrong.

Jack Czarnecki [pictured top left] will be happy to disillusion you. “Most of the truffle oil out there is fake,” he says, citing a 2007 New York Times article that referred to the boom in truffle-infused oils as “hocus pocus.” The Times reported that much of the oils’ vaunted truffle aroma comes from synthetic compounds created in a lab. But Czarnecki isn’t troubled by the traffic in faux truffles; on the contrary, he says, “It makes my job a little easier.”

Czarnecki’s job is making truffle oil from real truffles, which he harvests in the Douglas fir forests near his Oregon home. Truffle season runs roughly from December to February, and depending on a given year’s yield, he might produce 50 to 75 liters of the truffle-infused olive oil, selling it under the label Oregon White Truffle Oil. “And that,” he says, “is all the naturally produced truffle oil on earth.”

The claim is difficult to verify, but Czarnecki’s oil is unquestionably a rarity and probably the only such oil produced on a commercial scale. It takes about six months to make, and that’s not counting the time spent seeking the elusive underground treasure. Czarnecki is a truffle hunter par excellence, and even he seldom finds one larger than a 50-cent piece. Truffles grow on shallow tree roots; to find them, Czarnecki looks for telltale signs of digging by small animals.

Animals can pick up the scent because they have stronger schnozzes than we do.

Jack Czarnecki

Truffles represent a natural progression for Czarnecki. His father, Joseph, was a dedicated mushroom hunter who ran Joe’s Restaurant, renowned for its mushroom cookery, in Reading, Penn. He also taught Czarnecki the family trade: “We’d go hunt mushrooms and come back to open a bottle of wine and watch the Eagles,” he recalls.

Sibling rivalry landed Czarnecki at Andover. “My brother went to the Hill School, and I wanted to go someplace better,” he says. The PA years, he says, were “challenging—but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.” After Andover, Czarnecki earned a degree in bacteriology at UC Davis, where he also met his wife, Heidi. He took over the family’s restaurant in the 1970s, solidifying his reputation as a mushroom authority by penning several cookbooks, including the James Beard Award–winning A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms.

But by 1997, the West Coast was calling him again—this time to rural Oregon, where he opened another restaurant, The Joel Palmer House, and turned his focus from mushrooms to the area’s comparatively plentiful truffles. Today, son Christopher ’96 is executive chef, while son Stefan helps oversee the truffle oil enterprise. A third Czarnecki child, Sonja ’94, is dean of students at a Kansas private school.

The truffle business requires supreme patience and persistence; it’s no mystery why synthetic scents would predominate. But what might deter others is what keeps Czarnecki in the game: “You need to find new spots every year. You can go a week and find nothing. But that makes it fun and exciting; that’s what makes it a hunt.”

Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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