The Spice of Life

A Master of Mixes Inspires Chefs of All Cultures

Spice Cookies: In addition to crafting spice mixes, Lior Lev Sercarz makes spiced sweets.
Lior Lev Sercarz
Spice Cookies: In addition to crafting spice mixes, Lior Lev Sercarz makes spiced sweets.

By Leah Koenig

Published January 11, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
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Lior Lev Sercarz has one seriously impressive spice cabinet. Since 2006, he has delivered the best salts, peppers and cinnamons, along with 120 other herbs and spices from around the globe, to chefs and home cooks alike through his company, La Boîte à Epice.

The company, which crafts custom spice blends, is the realization of Lev Sercarz’s lifelong dream — not to be a master spice expert per se (though he undoubtedly is one), but to combine his passion for food with his love of both design and storytelling. Lev Sercarz, 38, was born on Kibbutz Dan, which his grandparents helped found in the Galilee in the 1930s, and raised in Israel and Europe. He got his culinary start 16 years ago at an Israeli catering company before moving to Lyon, France, to study cooking.

While in Lyon, he trained under spice master Olivier Roellinger, whom Lev Sercarz said “ignited his passion for spices.” Roellinger encouraged him to explore spices’ cultural history as well as master their culinary applications. Before long, Lev Sercarz was reading tales of kingdoms and conquest, of ancient spice routes and caravans toting spice chests through the hazy desert. He was hooked.

Several years later, while Lev Sercarz was working at the renowned Manhattan restaurant Daniel, chef-owner Daniel Boulud took notice of his unusual affinity for spices and asked him to create a few special blends for his kitchen. His experimentations evolved into an idea and then a business — or two. (In addition to the blends, he also makes artisanal cookies perfumed with things like clove and sage, which he sells through a sister company, La Boîte à Biscuits.)

Lev Sercarz’s work requires equal parts artistry and chemistry. Each blend starts with a spark of inspiration: a friend, a book or an aria at the opera. From there he begins a rigorous process of smelling, tasting and adjusting until he reaches the right proportions of texture and flavor. “If you put two mismatched people together at a party, it doesn’t work; it’s the same for spices,” he explained. La Boîte à Epice’s resulting collection of 40 original blends, each named after the person or moment that inspired it, evokes a carefully orchestrated global palate of flavors. After only five years, Lev Sercarz has built an impressive list of clients that includes world-renowned chefs like Eric Ripert and Paul Liebrandt.

“I have never met someone with a nose for blending like Lior,” said his friend, chef Ana Sortun. La Boîte à Epice’s blends are a fixture of Sortun’s kitchen at Oleana, her Turkish-inspired restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. Sortun was instrumental in the development of the Ararat blend (urfa biber pepper, smoked paprika and fenugreek) that echoes the traditional spices used to cure basturma, the Turkish predecessor to pastrami. Lev Sercarz even named a blend after Sortun: the Ana — a heady mix of sumac, rose blossom, chilies and sesame seeds, which she sprinkles into rice dishes and rubs onto roasted duck.

In Philadelphia, Michael Solomonov, chef-owner of the Israeli restaurant Zahav, also incorporates La Boîte à Epice’s Middle Eastern blends (like the Galil, which combines verbena with white cardamom and sage, or the parsley, garlic and cumin mixture called Kibbeh) into his menu. He uses the Mishmish blend, a fusion of crystallized honey, saffron and lemon, to sweeten chicken stocks and enliven cheese plates. In 2009, Solomonov and Lev Sercarz co-hosted a dinner, developing a five-course menu around La Boîte à Epice’s blends. “Honestly, I could create 10 courses from one blend,” Solomonov said. “They have that much depth.”

While Lev Sercarz is admired for his innovation, his achievements root him in a centuries-old link between spice and the Jewish community. This connection stretches back to antiquity when spices and other exotic goods were considered sacred treasures. The Torah tells how the Queen of Sheba delivered to King Solomon “a great train with camels that bore spices and gold, and precious stones” during her visit to Jerusalem. In Temple worship, priests burned a precise incense mixture of saffron, cinnamon, myrrh and other aromatics. And, as Gil Marks writes in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, 2010), “during the days preceding the Passover holiday, merchants could be heard throughout Jerusalem calling out, ‘Come buy your spices for the commandment [of haroset].’”

In later centuries, Jews played a significant role in the international spice trade. Medieval Jewish merchants called Radhanites journeyed between Europe and Asia, moving with relative freedom between the Christian and Islamic worlds and transporting everything from silk and gems to cloves, ginger and pepper. “As a result of [their] trade,” Marks writes, “Asian spices were a part of upper-class European and Jewish cookery in the early medieval period.”

Today, Jews’ culinary link to spices continues — especially in Sephardic communities, which, as Claudia Roden writes in “The Book of Jewish Food” (Knopf, 1996), “[are] known for [cooking with a] wide range of aromatic herbs, seeds, bark, roots, pods, pistils, petals [and] flower water.” Even Ashkenazi cuisine, which is hardly known for its flamboyant seasoning, relies on cinnamon to add depth to tzimmes, adds caraway seeds to rye bread, and slathers mustard (made with fiery mustard seeds) onto knishes. Lev Sercarz believes that spices are also among the few areas of common ground in the melting pot of contemporary Israeli cuisine, a constant regardless of whether one’s background is North African, Middle Eastern or European. Then again, he feels that way about all cuisines.

“I have yet to meet a country or food tradition that doesn’t prize at least one or two spices,” he said. His goal with La Boîte à Epice, then, is to continue to inspire his chef clients in their professional kitchens and encourage home chefs to be more confident and comfortable with their seasoning. “Each of these blends tells a story,” he said. “And each can be used in countless preparations. I love watching what people make with them — how they take this bit of creativity and run with it.”

Below, an interview with Lior Lev Sercarz about his line of spice cookies and its accompanying art:

La Boîte à Epice’s blends are available online at LaBoiteNY.com or TheIngredientFinder.com.

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com.


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