Sherry & Spices
Dinner at Tertulia, NYC
february 22, 2018 • By Seamus Mullen
I’ve been lucky enough to call Lior Lev Sercarz a friend for over 12 years. He is the chef, spice blender and owner of La Boite, a biscuits and spice shop in NYC and he will be joining me at my restaurant, Tertulia in New York this Monday 02/26 for a special Sherry & Spice, family-style dinner. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his extraordinary work, I sat down with Lior and asked him a few questions about himself. Learn what drove him to do what he does, the healthy and sustainable boundaries he has in force to create a work-life balance and get to know who his mentors are and why. So looking forward to Monday night. Please join us. Tickets available here.
Lior, my friend, I’m so excited to collaborate with you again! It’s been nearly 12 years since we first hung out and played with food, a lot has happened in your life since then. Can you tell me about the birth of La Boite and how it’s changed and how you became the spice dude?
It has indeed been a wild 12 years! After nearly 20 years of cooking in restaurants in Israel, France and then NY. I felt that perhaps my calling in life was to pursue my passion for spices and the quest for flavors, taste and scent. I have noticed over the years how little chefs and home cooks alike knew about spices and how to use them. Most people own spices but for the most part, the quality is not great and they only use a small variety of them. I really believe that using spices (you do not need many) can elevate and transform any dish (beverage, sweet and savory) to another level. It allows you to reduce sodium and sugar in cooking and since you are satisfied by the bold flavors the spices provide, you also consume smaller portions of food. It allows you to transform familiar every-day dishes to more exotic ones without leaving your kitchen.
I stated with a handful of restaurant accounts creating unique spice blends for them. I wanted to make blends that had no specific use but that could be used with anything. With time, we started to work with not only chefs but also bakers, chocolatiers, distillers and so on. There has been a great demand and interest in our single well-sourced spices. I spend a lot of time educating professional and home cooks and improving their seasoning skills.
Today we work with nearly 200 professional accounts around the US and some outside and thousands of homes around the country.
I know your parents are passionate about food, I’ve had the olive oil, I’ve eaten with your pops, so it’s no surprise to me that you that have become the beautiful person that you are, but can you walk me through your timeline- how you went from Israel to France to NYC? And how, even after years of abuse in French kitchens you managed not to become an asshole?!
I was born and raised in a Kibbutz in the Galilee where the food was rather bad! Luckily, Israel always had great street food and my friends cooked amazing ethnic food at their homes. I was exposed from an early age to a variety of cuisines and fell in love with the idea of cooking and feeding others beyond the simple need of survival. The act of sharing a meal with family and friends was and still is very important to me. I was fortunate to travel and live in Europe with my parents and sisters and learn even more about other cuisines and ingredients that were not available in Israel.
Later on my parents supported my passion by helping and encouraging me to move to France and join the Paul Bocuse cooking school. I stayed 3 more years in France and was able to work with Olivier Roellinger who introduced me to the magical world of spices and became my mentor.
I moved to NY in 2002 to work with Daniel Boulud and stayed with him for 6 years. I have learned a lot from him, mainly his sense of hospitality and how to manage a business.
I have sadly seen some bad behavior over the years in kitchen both in France and the US. I think it only showed me how wrong it is and how unnecessary it is. I guess my 3 years in the military also helped deal with it and look beyond that attitude. I also chose never to be around for too long in the "bad" kitchens.
You have a beautiful family with three kids (if you count the spice shop), are there any rituals or routines that keep you grounded and make juggling being a father, a husband and an entrepreneur manageable?
I am addicted to the idea of being a father and husband and balance family life and work. I do like both and spend equal amounts of time with each. I decided early on that I would not work on weekends and spend time back then with only Lisa and now with the boys. It was a great decision. We work hard during the week and then I am able to spend time with my family. I also come home every evening to be with them and spend a few hours each morning with them. I do not want to miss any part of them growing up. I realized that I can still keep working after they are asleep and maintain the business aspect.
I also have a great team at work that helps me. I guess the bottom line is that you can have both and succeed.
What’s your earliest childhood memory of spice?
I remember making a spice blend around the age of 11 or so while working in the kibbutz at the fish farm. After a long day of work, we had a few whole fish and made a simple wood fire set up near the fish pond. I can’t remember all the ingredients but it was a basically garlic, chili flakes, za'atar leaves all mixed with olive oil rubbed on the fish and cooked over the fire. For years to come this became our signature blend. I do miss those simple days some times.
Next Monday you’ll be collaborating with the Tertulia team for a very special night. What can people expect from the dinner we’ll be cooking?
Cooking with you guys at Tertulia means a lot to me. You were one of the first people to give me a chance and with great wisdom and tips encouraged me to open the store, so it is kind of a coming home dinner for me. Tertulia feels like someone's home (a big home) and that is my favorite kind of environment to cook in.
I think the dinner and food will showcase the idea that spices are not a crazy exotic foreign thing. It will be familiar ingredients simply cooked and prepared elevated by small bursts of flavor. The dishes will be shared which is my favorite way of serving food and eating. it is also a way to show that spices can be used on raw and cold dishes.
It will be a first for me to pair them with sherry and I am excited about that too.
Beyond that, I think it also shows that when you get to a certain level in any craft and art you can have 4 people cook and create together in the most organic and beautiful way. It is sort of a jazz session where everyone feeds of each other.
I greatly appreciate our friendship and I deeply respect your craft, but more importantly who you are as a human. If there were one person in your life who you would want me to know (alive in body or in spirit), who would that be?
There are a few people who really helped me become who I am by doing something or just letting me be who I wanted to be. My parents always let me do and be what I wanted and chose to be. This freedom was great but also challenging. My mother’s mom was also a great influence with her simple life wisdom and she taught me to be kind and respectful no matter what. She really believed everyone was good (and Jewish). It was a generation that has seen so many changes (not all good). I learned from her to also make the most out of everything and that only lazy people complain the other ones do something about it or at least try to change it.
The other non-family related person was Winston Churchill who I love for his passion for success , champagne and his uncompromised vision.
What great things are coming next from you?
I am starting to work on my 3rd book which will be back to basic simple everyday cooking using simple spices. I am building a culinary academy in Israel that I hope will open in 2020. I have some fun partnerships with Williams Sonoma, Ruinart champagne, Goose Island Beer and more.
I am also focusing on being even more with my family and travelling with them.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, I’m so much looking forward to cooking with you again next week.
I can’t thank you enough for all the support, love and friendship over the years!!!