The Spice Artist: A Visit To La Boîte A Epices
The first thing to notice upon entering this spare, minimalist space is the spotlit artwork that adorns the walls. There's a shelf of artfully arranged tins along the window, a design-heavy end table by the entrance. But hardly a clue that this is a spice shop, let alone one of the finest in the city.
Only when you step up to the counter and meet the proprietor, chef and master blender Lior Lev Sercarz, do you see a demure line of stout spice canisters for sale. "People find it interesting that I sell things here," he explains. His offerings include mysterious ingredients you'd be hard-pressed to recognize, let alone find anywhere else: orchid root, smoked cinnamon, seafood essence.
Sercarz has been blending spices for years, though only recently has he been selling retail. When not behind La Boîte's counter, he's a wholesale spice consultant for chefs developing new dishes. During a dialogue that can take up to several months, he tastes, processes, grinds, and tests blends that capture the holistic essence of flavors to complete a dish. His talent, expertise, and encyclopedic knowledge of the world of spices have earned him an impressive list of clientele, which includes the likes of Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin.
Sercarz's craftsmanship is impressive, but it's his artistic approach that sets his work apart. His creations, he says, tell a story: "There has to be some idea behind it. What do you want the blend to say?"
One blend I sampled, the Reims, is an artful quartet of crystallized honey, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon. It was created for a chef looking to bring gingerbread flavors into savory applications, and named for the French city, the European capital of gingerbread during the Middle Ages. It tastes decidedly savory, clean and modern. But it retains the complex sweetness of those dark, spicy loaves of Old World gingerbread. The blend binds a storied past to a pioneering future, doing ample justice to both.
Sercarz is dedicated to connecting eaters to the past, either their own or another culture's. Some of his blends capture the essence of cuisines. The Penang (sweet chile, onion, and turmeric) conveys the Malaysian balance of sweet, savory, and fire. The Yemen (cinnamon and ginger) describes the assertive but gentle sweet spices of Middle Eastern fare.
The ingredients for these blends are meticulously sourced. Sercarz goes to great lengths to select the perfect variety of a spice to fit its blend. His reverence for his ingredients is reflected in the quality of his work, which takes no shortcuts. His cinnamon, for example, is smoked in-house.
The large storefront of La Boîte, empty but for the artwork on the walls, is meant to be filled with conversation. Sercarz loves chatting with his customers, learning their tastes and guiding them to flavors they'll enjoy. Though blends can be purchased online, he insists "this place is for people to come and visit." Despite its modern trappings, it recalls spice shops of old, where customers can kibbitz at length with each other and the proprietor. It's a rarity in the world of spices, a kind of participatory commerce usually restricted to farmers markets and artisan shops.
More than selling a product, his passion lies in educating and exciting cooks and eaters, teaching not just exotic flavors but their equally exotic histories. Customers will pay handsomely for the experience—3-ounce canisters cost between $15 and $23. But for a unique taste of the exotic and Sercarz's passion for education and discovery, it's money well spent.