Those who swear by the gospel of Lior Lev Sercarz, chef and proprietor of spice shop La Boîte, call him the “spice therapist.” Sercarz is a certified maestro of spice blends, and eateries across the country, from New Orleans’ Shaya to San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery, have enlisted his help in enlivening their dishes. He operates La Boîte out of an airy, minimalistic office in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. But he travels often to spread his knowledge, hosting events with other chefs and putting on spice demos at least once a week.
Sercarz has been running his business for 11 years now. He's scaled it incrementally from a scrappy solo show run out of his apartment to a staff of eight full-time members. Sercarz makes a number of spice blends and accessories that Food52 sells proudly (including his latest Modular Magnetic Walnut Spice Rack). It’s a business he has supplemented with two books, 2012’s The Art of Blending and 2016’s The Spice Companion, both of which provide encyclopedic information on spices and their many possible permutations, coupled with vibrant, anatomically-detailed illustrations for each.
It’s all part of his greater plan to inculcate mass consumers to what he perceives are the oft-neglected wonders of spices. Sercarz’s been working in food for three decades, and his desire to open La Boîte in 2006 was born out of his perception that professionals and amateur cooks may not have been realizing the full potential of spice blends. To his mind, they may have been intimidated by the prospect of grappling with the breadth of all the world’s spices, finding it easier to stick to salt and pepper. So he’s made it his life’s purpose to show professionals and amateurs alike how to look at their spice cabinets in a different way.
Sercarz possesses an acute sensory knowledge that he gleaned from his childhood in Israel. He spent the first few decades of his life on a kibbutz in the Galilee with his parents and two sisters. It serviced roughly 400 people. The culinary offerings there were so bad as to be vaguely traumatizing. “We had meals in a communal dining room,” he explains to me of these turgid, muddy soups and stews. “I didn’t know better. I thought it was okay then. But, looking back now, it was pretty bad.”
The most enlightening culinary experiences he’d have were far outside the kibbutz. He’d forage for raspberries, blackberries, apples, oranges, and avocados. Produce was growing all around him in the Galilee of the 1970s, a paradisiacal reprieve from the dread of the dining room. There was a river that ran adjacent to the kibbutz where he’d frequently fish for trout. In a town nearby, he found a galaxy of street food, from shawarma to falafel to sabich, reflections of Israel’s ethnic heterogeneity.
As he roamed outside the kibbutz, though, he was most enchanted by the spices that grew around him. He began to play with oregano, mint, thyme, and rosemary as if they were toys. Sercarz made his first spice blend when he was ten years old without even thinking about it: a brew of chile flakes, paprika, garlic, and salt.
As Sercarz grew older, he began his mandatory service in the Israeli army. He served three years as a commander of an artillery before he was promoted to be a sergeant. One of his duties as a sergeant was to oversee the food his soldiers ate, to make sure they were nourished properly. Among his more memorable experiences was sautéing 200 chicken cutlets atop a propane stove in Lebanon while rockets whizzed overhead, convinced he could persist when given meager resources and less-than-optimal conditions.
In the mid-1990s, after completing his military service, Sercarz set off for a one-year spice tour of South America. “Most young Israeli men and women find military service a very intense and overwhelming experience, so most of them travel for a little bit,” he says. “I think where you go depends on where your older brother or sister went before you.” His older sister went to South America, so he followed.
He spent a year zig-zagging across the continent, going to Chiloé Island in Chile for berry harvests and Colombia to observe how cardamom was grown. The continent opened him to olfactory sensations he’d never encountered. In South America, he found every variety of chile imaginable.
After a brief return to Israel, Sercarz decamped for France, where he attended the renowned Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon. He worked under the tutelage of Chef Olivier Roellinger in the city of Cancale and parlayed this into a position as sous chef at Daniel Boulud's then-nascent Daniel in New York. After a few years in the restaurant business, though, Sercarz grew weary and restless, seeking a change of pace from the tedium of restaurant life. So he began toying with the idea of La Boîte.
When he launched his business, Sercarz made a pact with himself to keep his expectations realistic, to roll with any punches that came his way, to not adhere to any imagined business model that may stifle his creativity. He thought it imperative to adapt and listen to his desired constituency of home cooks and professional chefs alike, but at the same time, assert his business’ relevance to them.
It’s hardly been easy: Sercarz has encountered faint skepticism amongst would-be consumers about the necessity of these spice blends in their kitchens. “Many people see these spices as something that they can live without, perhaps, or have alternatives to,” he tells me. But he sees endless possibilities for bringing their varied flavors together in a way that feels harmonious and exciting. There’s a lot of spices out there; he’s never known a life without them.
Shop our newest La Boîte spice blends here.