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Gotham Gigs: Daniel Boulud's former sous chef has the secret spice for city restaurants

By HILARY POTKEWITZ

COLOR PALATE: Sercarz combines unlikely spices in his signature blends.

Lior Lev Sercarz spent most of his childhood in a house without a full kitchen, so his parents were taken aback when he announced at age 23 that he wanted to become a chef.

“They were resigned to the fact that their son was going to be a failure, that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a doctor,” he joked.

Sercarz was born and raised on a kibbutz, a collective farm in northern Israel. Meals were served in a communal dining hall.

It wasn’t until he was 10, when the family moved to a suburb of Tel Aviv, that he had his first experience with hands-on cooking. He remembers helping his mother prepare meals—nothing fancy, he says—and the bottles of store-bought seasonings she used: meat rub, fish seasoning and soup blends.

“If the jar label said soup, it’s for soup and that’s that,” he said, recalling how rigidly they followed directions. “The way most people cook at home is still the same: They use the spice only for what the jar says it’s for. I wanted to change those perceptions.”

After military service in Israel, Sercarz worked for a catering company, setting up outdoor feasts for tourists, complete with Bedouin tents and platters of Middle Eastern food. Then he moved to France and went to culinary school. (With one grandfather from Tunisia and another from Belgium, Sercarz spoke French from a young age.)

He moved to New York City in 2002 for a job at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s two-Michelin-star restaurant. Sercarz spent six years there in various chef’s roles, “but I was constantly bugging him about spices,” he said, adding that Boulud “finally built a beautiful spice shelf and let me take over.”

Eventually, he asked Sercarz to develop a line of spices for the restaurant.

Soon Sercarz was blending spices in his 350-square-foot apartment. He picked up customers including chefs, bakeries and hotels. By 2006 he had two dozen clients 
and was ready to launch his spice business, La Boîte.

His hope, he said, is to have someone open a jar from the collection and “cook fish with it tonight, vegetables with it tomorrow and, over the weekend, bake some cookies with it.”

La Boîte now produces about 80 spice blends—not confined to food. Sercarz recently used zuta levana, a wild mint, for a customer in the liquor business.

“That’s the beauty of what we do,” he said. “I’m in New York, importing mint from Israel to be used in a gin distilled in Bloomington, Indiana.”

 

Lior Lev Sercarz

AGE: 45 BORN: A kibbutz in Upper Galilee, northern Israel RESIDES: Upper West Side EDUCATION: Institut Paul Bocuse School of Cuisine, Lyon, France price of spice La Boîte blends range from $15 to $27 per 2-ounce jar. A gift box of spiced biscuits sells for $65. PEPPER POWER: Sercarz’s peppercorn blend contains eight varieties from various countries, ground to different textures. “It turns everyday pepper into something much more complex,” he said, “with some acidity, sweetness and floral notes to it.” ON THE SHELF: Sercarz has written The Art of Blending, which explains the origins of each of his blends, and The Spice Companion, a guide to 102 spices.

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