“It’s history, it’s trade, it’s economics, it’s agriculture…and then there’s cooking.” Spice blender and chef Lior Lev Sercarz loves where his culinary journey has taken him. What may have started as “revenge” for foods he ate as a child, Lior’s relationship with food has blossomed into what he believes is his life’s calling. On this week’s episode of “Heart to Table” with Laurie March, Lior dives deep into his personal history, his views on the future of spices and, of course, his tips on getting crafty in the kitchen.
The owner of La Boîte Biscuits & Spices in New York City, and the author of three (soon to be four) books on spices, Lior is a true ace of spice-blending. Despite his mastery, though, Lior still relishes the learning process.
“It’s a matter of wanting to do it,” he says, “I find it amazing, and that’s why I have so much to explore; because it’s all over the world.” Lior knows this from experience: he was born and raised in Israel, where he grew up in a kibbutz eating Eastern European food, and eventually completed three years as a sergeant in the Israeli army. He has since lived in Rome, Brussels, France and New York, cooking and patiently educating his palate one country at a time. Asked what his turning point from the kitchen to trade and retail was, Lior says he just “kept on coming back to spices.”
Combining Tradition and Innovation
In fact, Lior has made it his mission to “bring the glory back to spices.” A historian at heart, he admits that old world approaches to cooking had been less than trendy for about a hundred years. An experimenter in practice, he adds modern charm to those approaches by—what else—adding some spice to the mix. One look and it’s obvious his spice and biscuit shop unites these concepts. With its gallery walls showcasing a rotation of artists (whose works also embellish the store’s assortment of cookie tins), La Boîte upholds Lior’s connection to present day style and classic practices. “You could revive one of the oldest trades, and give them the value and the respect they deserve.”
This appreciation of old world tradition runs parallel to what Lior calls the grandmother era, the point in a chef’s career at which they pivot back to their cultural roots. On his years of exploration in the culinary world, he affirms, “I think you’ve got to go there to realize that you are who you are,” reiterating his doctrine of touching base with heritage through food, but being sure to add a little zest of your own. He values different cultures’ dishes, daring flavor concepts and each individual’s techniques (his Instagram profile—which celebrates others’ creations just as much as his own—is mouthwatering proof of this). “It’s about understanding how to bring spice into your household, your dishes and the way you cook,” he says; as such, Lior both teaches and embodies the notion that the first ingredient in your life’s blend is really your sense of self.
Blazing Your Own Trail
Regarding that personal spice discovery, Lior simply suggests starting fresh at home. He mentions that spice blending is both an art and a science, but reassessing your spice cabinet can be an easy way to begin: try spices on more foods (“ignore the label” Lior insists), consider their expiration dates written in water as opposed to stone, and don’t necessarily change the way you cook. Likening adventures of spice to the samurai journey, Lior asserts that the individuality of our spice paths may be the most rewarding, creative part about it.
As far as the future of spice goes, Lior’s roots in agriculture have instilled in him great compassion for the lifespan of a spice itself, as well as the hands it passes through on its way to our shelves. He values the deliciousness of a meal (have you seen his Chicken and Chickpea Paella?) in addition to the safety of the consumer and well-being of the farmer who first brought the herb to life.
“The future is about awareness, education…” he says. “And when you grab a jar of spices, for maybe a split second, it crosses your mind: what is this thing and where did it come from? I think that would be a great moment.”