Be it New York, Chicago, Paris or Singapore, the best chefs trust one man to create the spice blend that will perfectly complement and ennoble their dishes. Meet Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte à Epice, the man pioneering the spice revival.
At any given time of the day, Lior is in more than 45 of the most acclaimed restaurants around the world.
No, Lior cannot add challenger of the space-time continuum to his lengthy list of accolades, however he is responsible for the rebirth of the spice culture that seemed to have evaporated three to four hundred years ago. The once emphatic focus on spice blends is now the 99¢ afterthought tossed into your 100% recycled Whole Foods bag, alongside the premium quality produce and meat you pay extra for without questioning their price tag. Similar to many pioneers of the food world, Lior is going back to the basics with spices.
Raised on a kibbutz in the Galilee of Israel, a country whose culture embraces spices like a fondly missed cousin, it took leaving his home to realize the lack of worldly knowledge surrounding spices, even in their simplest form. Trained as a chef at L’Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, he apprenticed with world-renowned chef Olivier Roellinger who “sent me home to do my homework, research and learn. We developed a great friendship,” Lior says. “The more I learned the more I saw a passion. What I’m doing today is thanks to him. For 19 years I was in one restaurant all day long. I was upset about that so I did something about it, created my spice shop and now I get to be a partner, in a sense, with chefs all over the world. And its not only chefs, now everyone is realizing it’s not worth buying great produce to go home and use mediocre spices. And it’s not about using a complex spice blend; it can just be a wonderful salt and pepper. It’s about realizing what you like. Just because the recipe says salt and pepper doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
As he launched into unconquered territory, he was met with surprise and amazement. “What’s shocking was that chefs I met and worked with were almost scared [to use spices] because they didn’t learn how to use them. Once they start incorporating [custom spice blends] they discover this entire magical world that gives them another tool to propel their skills.”
Lior now gets texts at all hours from chefs in need of spices for a dish they’ve envisioned in their dreams. “Late last night I got a text from Chef about needing spices for white asparagus. But what’s truly great about spices is that you can use them all year round; season-to-season you can give the spice a new interpretation. That, to me, is beautiful. For example I have a chef who used the Appolonia (cocoa, orange blossom, pepper) in a wild boar stew, then in ravioli and the following season in a lobster salad. When you think about it, coco powder makes sense- it’s used in French classic cuisine and Mexican cuisine, it’s versatile. Chefs are constantly using my blends in interesting ways I would have never imagined.”
Creating the perfect spice blend can take 25 minutes or even 3 months for Lior and as life would have it, the blends he forecasts as difficult and complex are simple and quick, and naturally, those seemingly easy, not. Once he finalizes a blend, which includes a range of 9 to 23 ingredients (and no he never counts; there are 2 exceptions being smoked cinnamon and smoked salt, his only single ingredient spices), in the end “it’s a produce and it’s growing somewhere around the world, not in a factory. You get a spring harvest and every crop is different so you treat them differently.”
Today, after more than 20 years learning the history of spices and perfecting his trade, working with the greats like Eric Ripert, Paul Leibrandt, Dan Silverman, Marc Forgione, Ana Sortun, and Michael Solomonov, opening a shop to sell his custom curated line of 40 plus spice blends and biscuits [and his fathers olive oil], and being selected for the culinary roundtable for Lean Cuisine, Lior is still invigorated by the word no. “That is my biggest drive in life.”
What’s forthcoming in the next months for Lior is truly a fete of accomplishment. For reasons he deems “selfish”, we are the first to learn that he is self-publishing a cookbook [e-copy due out Septemberish, with the hard copy to follow prior to Thanksgiving] with chefs who use these blends on a daily basis. “It’s selfish of me to make these blends and think people are just going to get it. I’m creating them out of a certain inspiration, memory, cultural influence, and when I work with chefs it’s easy- they don’t want my opinion, they know what they want and we create it. So this cookbook will be a guide for each blend, we [a chef and I] have 1 full recipe, 4-5 “walk through” recipes and 10 tips. Listen, you don’t need me to make popcorn, but you need my Vadouvan spice to make your popcorn different, make it exceptional.”
Lior is also tapping into the world of beer and cocktails, creating spice blends to be infused in simple syrup, macerated with fruit, for rims of cocktail glasses or used in bitters. He is even working on a hop blend for an artisan beer, but we’ve promised to keep that under wraps. Did we mention that he’s also creating a line of chocolates, teaching a sold-out “cooking with spices” class with a member of the I’m In The Kitchen family, Julia Sullivan at Haven’s Kitchen on April 30th, and planning co-“chef-ed” cooking classes at his shop starting this fall? All while relishing in his lesser known calling, Spice Therapy; “I always say I run a 24-hour hotline with people stressed in the middle of cooking needing advice, or someone showing up with a bag of groceries worried about her 12 person dinner party that night. I do it every day and it doesn’t have to deal with cooking all the time, we also just talk about life.”
“Then,” he says casually “we’ll attack the next project.”
You can visit Lior at his shop, La Boîte à Epice, at 724 11th Avenue in NYC and while the sign lists their hours at W-F. 3pm – 7 pm just give them a call at 212.247.4407 because someone will be there. And tell him we sent you!
You can also browse his website here and purchase every blend online at www.theingredientfinder.com. If you’re having difficult choosing a blend, the Pierre Poivre (8 different peppers) and Cancale (fleur de sel, orange, fennel) are two that never fail, especially for spice beginners. For the spring try the Galil (verbena, white cardamom, sage) or the Izak (sweet chilies, garlic, cumin), and for summer you’ll want to purchase a Shabazi (green chilies, parsley, coriander) for the grilling season.
All photos copyright: Zoe Schaeffer / I’m In The Kitchen