Mixing spices at La Boîte. Mixing spices at La Boîte. Mixing spices at La Boîte. (Photo: Thomas Schauer)

Secrets of a spice master

Shop owner creates blends from more than 120 ingredients. How does he keep them all straight?

Not only is Lior Lev Sercarz a master spice blender, he's also something of a one-man spice-blending assembly line. He's accumulated an inventory of 90 globally inspired spice blends at his New York City spice and biscuit shop, La Boîte, with more in the works every day. Each can of spices is toasted, ground, blended and labeled by hand, by Sercarz himself, from a combination of about 120 ingredients.

“If I make six blends in one day, that’s an amazing day,” the Israeli-born Sercarz told From The Grapevine. His artisanal talents have gained him recognition over the years, with a spot as one of Bon Appétit‘s “Tastemakers of 2012.” His shop has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, In Style Magazine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Food & Wine Magazine.

Besides the shop inventory, Sercarz also creates special blends for chef clients (he got his start making blends for Daniel Boulud, where he began his New York culinary career) and collaborates with everyone from Michelin-star chef Eric Ripert to master mixologist Jim Meehan to ice cream doyenne Jeni Britton Bauer.

Lior Lev Sercarz blends spices at his shop, La Boîte, in NYC.Lior Lev Sercarz blends spices at his shop, La Boîte, in NYC. (Photo: Thomas Schauer)

Many of his blends are inspired by the flavors of Israel, which he describes as a mix of very pronounced flavors. At a panel discussion for the forthcoming film "The Search for Israeli Cuisine," Sercarz spoke about his early introductions to Mediterranean cuisine, and now, articulating the evolution of its dizzying array of flavors and influences.

To preserve the essence and spirit of these robust flavors without relying on it too much, Lior often employs an acidic component. “I love acidity so I try to introduce a lot of it, whether it’s lemon or orange. Or I use a lot of amchoor, which is green mango powder ... a sort of fermented mango preparation.”

Spice jars at La Boîte Spice jars at La Boîte (Photo: Edsel Little/Flickr)

He recounted a story of visiting his grandfather in Tunisia and experiencing his first whiff of harissa, a North African chili paste. “I have a vivid memory of my sisters making harissa from scratch: soaking the peppers, grinding the chilis into a paste on a stone, and that smell.” His No. 37 spice blend, named Izak after his grandfather, is essentially a harissa powder that combines chilies, cumin and garlic. The irony of harissa is that it all begins with dry ingredients. You don’t even use fresh chilies to make harissa – you use dried chilies that are later soaked in water to hydrate them. So I said, what if we just keep it as is? You can sprinkle harissa powder on salad, for example, and it won’t go soggy. And the powder lasts much longer than a homemade harissa paste.”

Mixing and canning spices at La Boîte. Mixing and canning spices at La Boîte. (Photo: Thomas Schauer)

While Lior does like heat, he tries not to add a lot of it, allowing the various ingredients to really shine and his customers to add the heat element on their own. More prominent in his blends is the interplay of sweet and savory. When he says sweet, he doesn’t mean sugar, but rather spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. “These are sweet scents that actually trick your brain into thinking it’s sweet. These are the things that I did bring with me from Israel.”

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Secrets of a spice master
Shop owner crafts spice blends from more than 120 ingredients. How does he keep them all straight?