At his New York store La Boite (www.leboiteny.com), Lior Lev Sercarz sells custom spice blends to chefs and home cooks. After training with chef Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, France, Sercarz worked at New York's Daniel before opening his spice shop in 2006. His book The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices was released Nov. 1. On Dec. 6, Sercarz teams up with chef Alon Shaya for a family-style dinner featuring custom spice blends at 7 p.m. at Shaya (4213 Magazine St., 504-891-4213; www.shayarestaurant.com). Tickets for the dinner are $150 and include a copy of the book. (Sercarz signs the book at Octavia Books at 6 p.m. Dec. 5.) Sercarz spoke with Gambit about spices.
Gambit: What initially drew you to the word of spices?
Sercarz: Over 20-some years of cooking as a chef all over the world, I realized that I wanted to explore different ways within the culinary world that don't necessarily end up in the restaurant. I met so many chefs and home cooks and was surprised to find out how little they really knew about spices. I guess what really triggered the interest was the seven to eight months I worked in Brittany (France). I've seen and used spices my whole life, including back home in Israel, but I had never seen anyone using them this way. It was a bit more of an upscale dining scene, with influences from Indian to French cuisines, where local produce from Brittany was used with these spices from all over the world in a smart way. That was kind of a breakthrough moment for me. ... I started thinking about what would happen if I could really revive the craft or the spice trade to help professionals and home cooks cook better and enjoy food in a better way.
What spice blends did you create for the Shaya dinner?
S: The average number of spices I use (ranges) from nine to 23 ingredients. In the book, they are mostly three to five ingredients. I don't have just one (favorite spice), although I always have some form of salt and some form of a heat component. Paprika, cumin and cinnamon are the things I try to keep on hand at all times.
(For the Shaya event) there's a combination of spices from the new book, and there are a couple of unique blends we made for the dinner. It's a very natural project for us. (Alon Shaya and I are) great friends, so it was very easy for us to put the dinner together. ... Every course has a different component to it, and we're using local products from New Orleans. There's one blend that we call "pasha." It's made from Urfa, which is also the name of a town in the south of Turkey. Urfa is a chili flake that has a really dark red color with smoky notes, with an almost chocolate and tobacco scent. It's really wonderful and we use it so that people understand that chili is not just about the heat, but that it can be used for savory (dishes) or in brownies or chocolate chip cookies. We're serving that with a roasted leg of lamb. There's also one we call "black and yellow." It has black cumin and yellow turmeric. Black cumin is not something that most people know of. It has notes of cumin, but it's also a little smoky and a little floral, and it combines well with the turmeric. With that, we're going to make a seafood chraime, a tomato and chili pepper stew that's traditionally made with a piece of braised fish. It's a little bit like North Africa meets New Orleans.
How long can you keep spices before they need to be thrown out?
S: The good news is that you don't get sick from spices. So, even five years later, you're not going to get food poisoning. However, there comes a point where they fade out and become just a powder with no scent or taste. I recommend that whatever you buy, the moment you bring it home, take a pen and date it one year from the date of purchase. Try to make a point to use them before the end of that year. Certain spices could stay good for two or three years, especially if they're whole, but I don't like to promote that fact. It's also good to buy the smallest quantity possible. You have to be honest with yourself and know how much you'll be using. Unless you have a family of 30, there's really no point to stock up on large quantities. It's better to rotate your stock and buy small quantities. They will be fresher and better.