Cover image: The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices by Lior Lev Sercarz © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
Bottom Line: With a humble introduction to food, Lior Lev Sercarz, founder of La Boîte Biscuits and Spices, never had imagined a career in the food industry. Today, however, he is regarded as one of the world’s most knowledgeable spice masters. At MOFAD, he presented his latest book, The Spice Companion, a 300-page testament of painstaking research, experimentation and philosophy of flavor.
Review: “You season with sodium and heat, not salt and pepper,” Lior Lev Sercarz fixed us with a gaze. The audience looked at each other with a shrug. Far from just a provocative statement, however, Lior’s purpose was challenge us to consider other alternatives to building flavor.
Sporting a dark blue lab coat and beard, Lior almost looks like an alchemist dabbling in the unknown. Affable yet focused, he speaks with a slight Israeli accent with a French twang. In spite of his knowledge of spices, he confesses that he is still discovering new blends. “I don’t claim to know everything, but I keep experimenting,” he said.
Through exploring the world, meeting with producers and collaborating with renown chefs like three-Michelin starred Éric Ripert of Le Bernardin and more recently The Brooklyn Brewery, he has turned his company La Boîte, into a spice lab and test kitchen. Selling upscale biscuits and spice mixes on one end, it also offers workshops for those keen to learn the art of spice blending.
But humbly he admits, “Blending spices isn’t all that difficult.”
Lior began as a self-taught chef who stumbled into the industry almost haphazardly when describes his uninspiring food upbringing. “I had the worst possible intro to food,” he joked. “Overcooked veggies, gray and black and too much vinegar and sugar.” Although he is self-deprecating in recounting the dismal food choices of his youth, both the spicy street food outside his kibbutz in Israel and life in Rome with his dad shaped his gourmet palette. “I discovered that food can taste and look really good.”
Lior decided to become a cook and traveled to France, where he enrolled at the Institute Paul Bocuse culinary school in Lyon before working under the forward-thinking chef Olivier Roellinger of Cancale in the North of France, who blended superb local produce with exotic spices, practically unheard of in France at the time. It was Olivier who taught him his most valuable lesson to experiment with flavor. “How do you do know if the spices work? Taste.” he said. Olivier taught him to go beyond conventional wisdom of relying on only salt and pepper.
“You can get sodium from soy sauce or seaweed.” he explained. And for heat, chilies can be an interesting alternative to just plain black pepper. “There are also other kinds of pepper that come from the same plant: green, white, red and black depending when they are harvested.” Each has its own unique flavor.
His biggest gripe, however, is with the predestined soup, fish and meat seasoning jars that are available at supermarkets. Taking a leaf from Olivier’s spice playbook, Lior said people should try making their own combos rather than relying on someone telling them what to think. At La Boîte, Lior’s has created exotic mélanges such as Bombay and Marrakesh that challenge the senses with seemingly unusual but compatible spice combinations. Spices are not limited to just food. The Tripel Burner a lightly spiced Belgian-style ale, a concoction made with Sercarz’s spice magic and Brooklyn Brewery’s mastery was an amazing feat. Subtle and smooth, yet perfectly balanced in flavor and refreshingness, it could accompany almost any dish, even a dessert.
The star of the evening, of course, was his book. With over 300 pages devoted to flavor, The Spice Companion, meticulously chronicles nearly every spice he has worked with. Complete with intriguing descriptions, it is beautifully edited and incredibly informative. It is not, however, a recipe book. Similarly to the quintessential must-have kitchen classics: Of Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and Trucs de Cuisiner co-written by Bernard Loiseau, Sercarz’s The Spice Companion covers spices and techniques rather than recipes. The rest is up to the user to develop. There are no rules, according to Lior, it’s all about experimentation and discovery.
For upcoming events and spice workshops, please visit La Boîte.
And don’t miss MOFAD’s beer and cheese pairing night with the Brooklyn Brewery Thurs. Dec. 8.