Meet the Man Who Wants You to Look at Your Spice Rack Differently

April 14, 2017
Lior Lev Sercarz. © Thomas Schauer

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Naciem
  • LadyR
  • petalpusher
  • Nina Koritchneva
    Nina Koritchneva
  • Whiteantlers
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Naciem July 23, 2022
"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." Did anyone else notice how we all casually read through invasion of Lebanon and romanticizing the war that went on for years and killed many on both sides? Is this the new form of Orientalism we have to look back to after 100 years to correct? I think a bit of empathy would be good for our soul even when we're reading through a pleasant article about organizing spice rack!
LadyR March 14, 2022

“Gifting Herbs and Spices”

Wedding and Shower season is fast upon us. One of the very best gifts you can give to anyone anytime is a gift of herbs and spices. You can order online if local shops are not accessible during Covid, or if they don’t carry a good selection.

Stock up on plain tissue paper wrapping so you can use layers.

Even at Christmas these make good stocking stuffers for a new cook.

This gift is also fabulous if you offer client gifts. I am always surprised how many people don’t buy herbs and spices to keep their pantry stocked. If fresh is not available the next best thing is dried but especially freeze-dried. The product I rely on heavily is often noted in my recipes, branded LiteHouse. It’s a fresh freeze-dried assortment and becomes almost fresh again releasing when on contact with moisture. Although difficult to find in local shops, when you do find it at your supermarket stock up. It just seems to disappear off store shelves. Go back. All gone. It is an imported product. And it might be months before you see it again. If your local grocer doesn’t carry it, perhaps ask if they can order. If they get enough requests the store will suggest to their head office.

My pantry has many of the LiteHouse jars but not all. Next up is glass jars of McCain label and small tins of ClubHouse. Over the decades I have discovered what works best by trial and error. And I try to deep-fry fresh herbs in season and dry to store in pantry jars for easy access. Easily tipped into any mayo or aioli to create a tasty sauce, dip or dressing to drizzle over your table special of the day.

Here’s my compliment to fresh list I always have on hand. And any or all in combination makes for an amazing gift that will keep on giving. You might even pack them in an oversize plastic covered dish or a large glass serving bowl to wrap as a gift.

Garlic salt, nutmeg, sweet paprika, (smokey is very different), chives, parsley, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, mint, celery salt, garlic powder (that I seldom use, preferring fresh), sea salt, McCormick (only) ground pepper to supplement my pepper grinder, McCormick ground cloves and whole cloves, ground cinnamon. Coriander, marjoram, tarragon, less often used but good to have on hand, and ClubHouse curry powder and chilli powder.

Allspice ground and whole, and cayenne, Italian seasoning, and poultry seasoning (used sparingly) with chief component being sage. And of course dried bay leaves. And of course no kitchen is complete without dill. Fresh dill drys beautifully, keeps in a covered large glass jar for months and really finishes guacamole; perfect in fish dishes and some salads.

There’s loads of others available: keep just a few threads of crocus threads: saffron; ground turmeric, cumin, cilantro (I don’t use), ground ginger, onion powder, cinnamon sticks, cardamom and cardamom pods, pink peppercorns, and countless others.

Decide how much you want to spend; it’s easy to spend fifty or even a hundred dollars to put a gift together. This sort of gift is not to be looked down on, and certainly every new bride will appreciate for her kitchen (or her husband will). Note to store in a cool dark cupboard and they will all last a long time, tightly covered. Remember that dried always requires using less. Less is more.

If you don’t cook using herbs and spices you are missing preternatural tastebuds tantalizers that make all dishes special by enhancing existing natural flavours. Maybe surprise your own table; give it a go. Add a couple to each shopping expedition and soon you will have your own collection.
petalpusher April 20, 2017
What a journey he's on. I'm always a little envious of folks who do a lot of traveling. The spiced chocolate chips are a fabulous concept, talk about portion control. I usually am more interested in the people who actually grow and tend the spices, but I'm sure he share's a lot of their stories in his books. And cooking through war, that's an experience I'm very grateful to have not been exposed to first hand, but the bittersweet reality of living through it, as many have and still do is humbling. I wish him much peace and delight on his spice road.
Nina K. April 15, 2017
So he's passionate about spices, I get that since I am, too. I am looking for ways and suggestions to use my spice collection more and not be so attached to the traditional uses, so curious to flip through this book. However where it loses me is the spice blends - I have made a garam masala blend when I got into Indian food, I've made chili blends as well but I've always struggled with buying premade blends; that napa blend sounded nice, but didn't do a great deal to the fish I tried it out on and didn't transport me back to California. Based on this I am sceptical whether I would get value out of this book.
Whiteantlers April 14, 2017
His book is fantastic and it's great to see this article about him.
ChefJune April 14, 2017
Lior's book is far and away the definitive (as well as spectacularly beautiful) book on spices, EVER. He goes into the story - both history and legend about each spice, tells its traditions and suggests new and different ways to use each. The illustrations are magical. Although you could display it on your coffee table, you really should keep it in your kitchen to juje up your flavors.
M April 18, 2017
I assume you're referring to The Spice Companion? I looked up both books, and the first (Blending) has terrible reviews for being promotional rather than helpful.