Food-, gin-, and spa-inspired products: Lior Lev Sercarz, the king of spice, has done it all. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Christina Perozzi
Lior Lev Sercarz is the blending master behind La Boîte, a spice shop in Hell’s Kitchen. We caught up with the chef (Daniel Boulud, Olivier Roellinger) as he was working on his second cookbook, Mastering Spice, due out in the Fall of 2019. He developed a Beer-Braised Chicken recipe, a juicy tribute to a weeknight bird layered with juniper berries, fennel, coriander, and poppy seeds, with a beer pairing in mind.
Christina Perozzi: What’s the traditional definition of a spice?
To be honest, I don’t really know. Plant-based? Maybe the fruit of the plant, though cinnamon is the bark of the tree, so that’s not true. My definition of spice is unlimited; everything that I can dry is essentially a spice. If someone creates a beer powder, it’s a spice. I have a few jars of hops sitting over there staring at me, and I will get to them one day. Even meat. We use dried fish like a spice—why not do a beef jerky powder? I got a pretty nasty email from someone who argued that salt is not a spice because it’s a mineral, not a plant. How could I put salt in my book [The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices]? He didn’t read chapter one, obviously. In my world, salt IS a spice.
You’ve worked at some of the world’s top restaurants. Why not stay there and make your beef jerky powders?
I think everyone can and should use spices. And I really love cooking. I want to educate people about those two things. I don’t want to change the way people cook or live—that’s very complicated. I know that I can’t do that. I only want people to bring spices into their everyday lives. Even if you don’t cook, you can still use spices. I don’t actually think everyone should cook. Someone decided at some point that everyone “can” cook. Some people should really stay away! But just getting the conversation going is important, even if it’s simple foods. I like to think of spices as a way to enhance your personality.
What’s your discovery process?
I don’t know that you can really “be” creative. You create. Luckily for me, in most cases, people come to seek guidance or knowledge about spices, which is still amazing to me. They’re the ones who come up with these great challenges, whether it’s a dish they have in mind or a blend they want me to formulate. I don’t get up in the mornings and try to come up with something as the next big thing.
You’re not looking to “disrupt”? [Laughs]
No, I have a lot of respect for traditions, and I also like to educate myself about ways things are being done. I learn from that. I try to write my own story based on tradition, innovation, and technology. But at the end of the day, whatever I make has to taste great.
Do you find that your work is informing chefs, helping them develop recipes?
Oh yes. Eric Ripert is a good example. He’s a friend and a partner in one of our spice lines. He is someone who can teach any of us something about cooking. I compare his food to walking naked. You have to be so self-secure to do it. Serving fresh fish that has been barely touched by the chef requires the same confidence. Eric really got me into this idea of asking myself, “Okay, even if I need only a little pepper, what would be the very best pepper to use?” That got me into blending peppers. He wasn’t sure about using more than one at first and said, “Don’t push the deal too far.” [Laughs] But gradually, even Eric realized that he does like certain spice blends and that they can be the sum of a lot of great things.
What about the “local” food trend as it applies to spices?
People love to talk about local food. The reality is there isn’t one restaurant in the world that is truly local, unless maybe you live by a salt mine and are harvesting your own salt. There will also be some things that are local that might not taste good. So local is good, but it isn’t always the best ingredient or even possible to find. Instead, if you approach spices like a knife or cutting board, it becomes a tool. Spices are an edible culinary tool in the hands of whoever is using them to make locally sourced food or whatever else they are doing.
What’s the spice reality for the average food establishment?
That’s the other side of the industry: those who use spices all the time but never question their quality. I’ve seen better-sourced spices make people want to change an entire recipe. Suddenly the same spice they’ve always used, like coriander, makes a dish taste completely different when the spice is good quality. The other issue is how do you actually season your food? Do you take a handful or just a pinch? In culinary school, you really don’t get any spice training. I was very lucky to work with a French chef who was very particular about [the concept of] “no wasted energy.” You train yourself to grab only the right amount of sea salt, so there is no back and forth, no wasting of money and energy, even, in your hands going back and forth. That is what it means to learn your craft, maximizing your energy so there is more of a flow. It’s like how musicians have to learn their craft, first they have to have that basic music knowledge, before improvising.
Okay, I’m just going to ask it: What are your thoughts on grocery store spices?
Actually, the level has gotten much, much better. That wasn’t the case fifteen years ago. Yes, they won’t be as good as some places, but I’m always surprised when I go to the grocery stores around my house. Things are changing. It’s exciting.
I’ll try to be excited the next time I go to the grocery store. You do a lot of collaborations. What’s the most unusual?
I’m actually working on a spa concept right now. I’ve done some perfume work, and obviously have many food and beverage clients. I’ve even put together spices for religious purposes, like jars of lavender or cinnamon or nutmeg for Shabbat. But the spa idea surprised me. I’ve gotten one massage in my life, and ten minutes into it I was thinking to myself, “When is this over? Do you have a wine list?” But this spa client came to me, and for the first time I saw the connection. The yogurt, the spices. If you exhale, inhale, you’re not going to eat your facial, but there is a lot going on there. It’s interesting to me because it’s also about texture, the act of rubbing and scrubbing. I also hope we can start growing more spices in the U.S. There is so little here now agriculturally. Canada grows almost all of the mustard and coriander in the world for export, and why? There is no reason we could not grow that here. You will find some sesame in South Carolina, saffron in Vermont, and salt harvesting around the country. There is even a little Espelette now growing in Sonoma. But this country is so big and the land very diverse, so much could be done. Look at hops.
Speaking of hops, you’ve done some work with brewers.
Yes, I love working with brewers. We brought six here at one point, and each brewer brought a beer that they liked. We had them make a spice blend that was either inspired by the beer or that they felt would be a good pairing. A month later, we all met at a restaurant around the corner and cooked a dinner with the spices that these brewers had made. They also brought the original beers back to taste with the meal. Nothing was a disaster, but not all of the pairings were super successful. And no offense, but brewers don’t always behave! They didn’t come with just the single beer they were supposed to bring; each brought a couple of other beers for the dinner.
Yes, beer people will never bring just one beer! That’s a given.
Still, it’s trying things that counts. It might be a disaster, but that’s fun. Running a marathon I would not consider fun. Opening another bottle to see if a flavor pairing works? I’ll try anything. I think there is a lot more that can be done in educating people in a fun way. People are still insecure, afraid to try many new things, even in cooking. Nobody wants to deal with their own issues or themselves, but we are all good at “fixing” other people’s problems. I want to get people more confident in their cooking. I was called the Spice Therapist once, as you can see.
You ARE like a spice therapist. What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in your world now?
The open-mindedness, this idea that people are discovering so many new cuisines, like Israeli food and Middle Eastern food I ate growing up. Finally! I’ve only been telling you about it for twenty years! But because it’s in a magazine now, it’s exciting to people. Still, that is globalization in a good way.
Speaking of flavor, it’s cocktail hour.
Have you tasted the gin I did? Cardinal Spirits, distillers out in Indiana, asked me to work on a gin with them (Terra Botanical Gin). I’d probably had a gin and tonic once, and I didn’t even know Bloomington existed. I called it “Bloomfield” until I spent a few days there. The guys from Upland Brewery also came, and we did a dinner with their sours. Beer is very interesting, but the challenge is the hops because they bring so much presence into the beer. Because of that, to me, sours are very exciting with food and also on their own. Anyway, most of the gins I had tried weren’t very easy to drink straight. I asked if we could do something that was more friendly to drink on its own. The [Cardinal distillers] told me that gin [legally] had to have juniper in it, but otherwise I could do whatever I wanted. I sent them notes on the batch I made, and they sent back some nondiluted proofs for me to evaluate. They made a few tiny tweaks, and that was it. The gin has very little juniper and a lot of wild mint from Israel. Also, berries from Indonesia, with that grapefruit-piney note to offset the juniper. For people who are heavy gin people, the Terra is probably not for them. But that’s what I like about it. I’m working on an amaro next.
I love amaro. How would you do one?
I think three ways: by putting [herbs and citrus] in the boil, a second time at the end of the boil to get some more of the freshness, and potentially in the tanks. I know they didn’t like my idea of putting stuff in their tanks.
We would let you!
I think logistically they thought it would be too hard. To me, it’s like cooking—how many layers can you add? And not just from new things, but from the same ingredient. I wouldn’t put a lemon in each bottle; I mean, that would be suicidal. But I’d use the tank to try different things.
We’re lucky, as we have a pilot program so our brewers can test out different ideas. How certain ingredients, like rosemary, work in fresh or dried form in brewing. I think several of them would be really interested in what you’re doing. Ken, who do you think?* Tim Faith?
Ken Hunnemeder: Oh gawd, you guys would nerd out together! Tim’s also an urban gardener.
*Ken Hunnemeder is Ingrain’s Director of Photography and Goose Island’s Content Manager. The cocktail buff came to the New York interview to shoot photographs.
LIOR'S SPICE BUYING TIPS
"Shop for spices the same way you shop for produce. You typically don’t need 20 pounds of produce or 1 pound of spices at one time."
A higher price point generally indicates better spice sourcing. While not always the case, it’s a good rule of thumb.
Do a visual analysis of the spices. Whole spices shouldn’t look powdery or falling apart.
Avoid buying spices in bags. They are difficult to seal completely. Boxes or jars tend to protect spices better.
Unlike other foods and drinks, there are few regulations regarding “best before” dates for spices. Use a Sharpie to write one year from the date you purchased a spice on the bottle.
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