Presently, it seems that most elite chefs are more willing to ply their trade on popular television cooking shows rather than crafting culinary masterpieces in the kitchen. Lior Lev Sercarz, however, creates a stark contrast. His chosen specialty is creating unique and original spice blends using a meticulously curated collection of ingredients sourced from all over the world. Like a dedicated flavor scientist, he toils away diligently at his spice shop La Boite, conjuring novel and distinct spices used by premier NYC eateries like Le Bernadin and Daniel. The chef turned spice-maker prides himself on making versatile blends that can be used for a plethora of preparations – from savory dishes to deserts, and much more. We recently caught up with the multi-talented epicurist to learn about his highly sought after spice creations.
When did you first start cooking?
Well, I started cooking at home in Israel at a very early age because my mother used to work late and she’d call me in the afternoon to give me instructions for starting dinner before she came home. We also grew up with a family in both Italy and Belgium so we traveled quite a bit. All that helped shape my enthusiasm for food. My first major interaction with cooking was in the military, where I had to oversee the kitchen staff as part of my duties as a sergeant. After the military, I was looking for a job and working with food came up as a possibility. I started working for a catering company and after 3 years, I decided to go to cooking school. I attended the Paul Bocuse culinary institute in Lyon, and then stayed in France for 5 years, before moving to NYC in 2002.
Your first job in NYC was with the famed chef, Daniel Boulud. How did that come about?
After my training in France, I was looking for a new experience in NYC, and I began sending my resume to different restaurants. Daniel Boulud was one of the first restaurants to respond with a work offer. I didn’t know much about what it was since it was the earlier days of his restaurant, Daniel. I stayed there for four years. I became his sous chef, then the chef of his catering company, and we also became good friends over everything.
Can you explain how your connection with spices developed?
It really started when I was living and working in France. In one of my jobs there, I was working in Brittany at a restaurant called Les Maisons de Bricourt, run by a very famous chef named Olivier Roellinger. We shared a love for spices, me being from Israel and him always traveling and discovering new flavors. He really encouraged me to follow that path of researching and working with spices, since there was really no school for that. By the time I moved to NYC, I was 3 or 4 years deep into my work with spices, and at Daniel, I started implementing some of the things I had discovered. Chef Daniel Boulud also encouraged my interest, so I just kept on going further, learning more and more.
How did the idea come about to start your shop La Boite?
When I decided to leave Daniel and look for the next experience, I first took another job cooking for executives at a bank. I needed some time to decide what I was going to do, and it took me about two years to do the research and development for the shop.
Can you briefly talk about the process of making a new spice blend?
It varies. It can be fairly quick, a matter of a few days or sometimes, it could be even a few months. The process begins two ways: either it’s me having an idea and then starting to play with ingredients or it’s a client who comes with an idea and then we start the dialog.
Before I even start sourcing ingredients, I like to know what I’m doing. Is it inspired by a person, a place or an experience, an ingredient? If I don’t have a great idea of what I’m doing, I won’t be able to convince the end user that it’s actually good. Once the story is defined, I gather on paper the ingredients that I think will work best. With the years, you develop a dictionary in your mind of the spices you need.
From then, it goes to getting ingredients – I have about 120 different ingredients here that usually give me what I need. Then I start measuring, because everything has to be done exactly so it’s the same every time. Then I lay them out, toast them, grind them, using different types of grinders for different consistencies, textures, and then I blend them.
Afterwards I go away for a couple of hours, or even a couple of days. It’s important to step away and come back with a new perspective. Then comes the process of smelling, tasting cooking with these blends to see if it’s good and need a little adjustment or sometimes it’s not good at all and I have to start again. I like to share new spices with as many people as possible, try them in as many preparations as possible – savory, baked goods, deserts, drinks etc. The idea of each and every blend that’s made here is that they are never made for just one thing.
How do you source the various components/ingredients for your spices?
I don’t travel as much because I have to be here at the shop working. For the most part, I’ve been able to create a really good relation with growers, farmers, importers and distributors who are always out there looking for stuff for me. There was this amazing couple from Cambodia that came in recently, and they have an amazing pepper plantation. I’m supposed to be getting a delivery from them very soon that I’m very excited about.
Can you give us an idea of the different facets of La Boite’s clientele?
We have about 60 clients all over the world on an ongoing basis, everything from Daniel Boulud and Eric (Le Bernadin) to bars, restaurants, catering companies, airline companies, beer brewers, chocolate makers. It’s very diverse, and we are constantly challenged to be creative and push ourselves to the limit. We also have a very big portion of clientele who are home cooks. People order our spices online all over the USA, and we’re also very excited when people come to the shop, and they’re just intrigued and want to learn. We also published a recipe book last year teaching people how to use the spices we make. We want to encourage people to use more spices and not be afraid of spices.
You also make biscuits at your store, can you elaborate on that?
Biscuits were actually the first product that I started doing. The idea was to combine many of my passions in one box; the cookies, the spices, the design aspect, and my love for art. We put out new biscuit collections twice a year, and each collection has 5 different types of cookies. I invite artists to decorate the boxes for biscuits, and each box is decorated inside and out by a different artist. To culminate the experience, we put together a show to at La Boite, and the art is for sale. Whatever we manage to sell, all the profits go straight to the artist.
La Boite is located at 724 11th Ave in Manhattan. Official shop hours are Wednesday-Friday , 3pm to 7pm. Outside these hours, you may call; (212) 247-4407 to set up an appointment.