Lior Lev Sercarz knows the power of a good spice blend: It can tell the story of a different culture. Plus, it makes cooking fun. The author of The Art of Blending creates custom spice blends, which he sells from his store, La Boîte á Epice.

JJ Goode: Tell me a little about your background.

Lior Lev Sercarz Lior Lev Sercarz

Lior Lev Sercarz: I’m from Israel originally. I’ve been away for the last 14 or 15 years. I was born in a kibbutz in Galilee and started cooking fairly early when I was 10 or 11 -- not because my mother was a phenomenal chef or a restaurant owner; it’s just because she was working late so I had to prepare dinner. 

I really got into cooking at the age of 18 or 19 when I joined the military; I was a sergeant, so I was in charge of the cooks. Later on, I started cooking in a catering company. From there I moved to France, went to Paul Bocuse Institute, a very famous cooking school in Lyon, and stayed working 3 additional years in France. I moved to New York in 2002 to work for Daniel Boulud. I stayed with him for about 4 1/2 years until I decided to follow my own career and do what I do now, which is biscuits, or cookies, and spices.

JJG: How did you get into spices? There are so many things you could have done: pickles, mustards, oils. Why spices?

LLS: I think spices have to do a lot with my background -- being from Israel and eating food with a lot of spices in it. There is a big difference between spicy and hot: You can use spices, yet it doesn’t mean that it’s hot. Heat is a whole other element. I’ve noticed a very big lack of knowledge from my colleagues as chefs not knowing about a lot of spices. 

I think the biggest change in my career was while I was living in France. In one of my jobs I was working in Brittany in the north of France. I worked for a very renowned, famous chef named Olivier Roellinger. He was very well known, still is, for his use of spices. He travels a couple of times a year to India and Indonesia to source a lot of spices. Going from an average French kitchen with about 10 to 15 spices on the spice rack, you go to about 120.  

JJG: So his pantry had about 120?

LLS: About 120.

JJG: I couldn’t even name 40 spices I don’t think.

LLS: It’s hard. But I was just blown away and I was very curious. He was very smart about it; he forced me to go back home and do my own research. I just became really excited and passionate about spices. Spices were a way for me to express myself. I enjoyed sourcing, meeting farmers and growers in countries.

JJG: Here’s what might be a silly question: Where do spices come from? In my head I imagine they come from a factory in New Jersey or the supermarket.

The Art of Blending The Art of Blending

LLS: That’s what I usually tell people. They don’t grow in Ohio or in Idaho in a factory. They come from fields all over the world. There are obviously regions that are bigger in growing spices like Asia, so India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and then there’s Turkey, a little bit of Eastern Europe.

It’s important to understand that they come from a field somewhere. In most cases, the terrain is very rough, so there’s a lot of manual labor and not a lot of mechanical equipment. People still own very small parcels, so they will grow a few pounds or a few hundred pounds. From there they travel to the local broker, and finally we get them here in the U.S. There’s a long wait before we get them here. 

Sourcing both for the professional and the home cook -- how do you know if the spice is good, how do you know where it came from? It’s very hard when you pick up a jar in your local supermarket. I think the easiest way is just to look at them and see their color. If there are a lot of pieces of dust in them and they’re broken, something is already wrong. You can teach yourself very easily if something has good flavor; if it smells good, then it’s probably a good ingredient.

I would buy smaller quantities to start with, just to get an idea if your source is good or not. I always tell people that it’s a waste of time to buy good meat, fish and vegetables and season them poorly with bad salt or bad pepper. Spend a little bit of time educating yourself about what you like. Do you prefer black pepper to white to green to pink? Do you prefer sea salt to mine salt to iodized salt? There’s no right or wrong. It’s what’s good for you.

JJG: Once you have these great spices, why not just sell them individually? Why blends?

Lamb Meatballs with Spinach Salad Recipe: Lamb Meatballs with Spinach Salad

LLS: I chose blending because I wanted to allow people to have one jar of a great blend versus having seven jars that they never use. I live in a very small apartment where every inch matters in the pantry, so I think that’s a great tip for people who like to cook yet don’t have much space or much time. That’s where I can help them. 

I can help them to discover that even if they think that they don’t like a certain cuisine, they don’t really know what they’re talking about. They actually do; they just had a bad experience. I try to explain to them that there’s no need to become something that you’re not: You’re not going to become an Indian cook or Pakistani or Turkish because that takes years, but you can give your everyday dishes that you’re familiar with a little note from those countries. 

One of my funniest clients doesn’t even cook; she just orders in and adds the blend to whatever she orders. She can order white rice 5 days in a row, but one day it tastes Moroccan and then the next day it tastes Southeast Asian and so on. She enjoys it and I think it’s fantastic. I always say, “It’s traveling without going anywhere.” You can stay home and travel. That’s why I do blending. I think it also tells stories of different cultures and different eating habits and it just makes cooking fun. It takes it from the 2-D to the 3-D.

JJ Goode
JJ Goode has written about food and travel for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Men's Vogue, Details and Every Day with Rachael Ray. He has co-authored several cookbooks, including A Girl and Her Pig with April Bloomfield, Truly Mexican with Roberto Santibanez, Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking with Masaharu Morimoto, and Serious Barbecue with Adam Perry Lang.