Part 2 of 5
When Lior Lev Sercarz returned to Israel, he worked with Chef Gil Frank who encouraged him to enroll in culinary school at the acclaimed Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. During that time, Lior did an externship with Chef Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, France, who had earned three Michelin stars at his hotel and restaurant Les Maisons de Bricourt. Roellinger became known, just as a ‘nose’ would for perfume, for his rare understanding of spices, blends, oils, and pastes, especially those that express the adventurous, seafaring spirit of Saint-Malo, his home town and French port critical to the spice trade. This time with Chef Roellinger cultivated Lior’s love of spices.
“Working with Olivier in Brittany, was definitely a big turning point in my life and career that helped me get to what it is that I do today, being a spice blender and spice trader. Understanding the value of spices, the wisdom behind using them, the craft and art, really started this journey that today is called La Boîte,” says Lior, who eventually came to the US in 2002 to work with Chef Daniel Boulud at his flagship restaurant Daniel as a sous chef and catering chef. He left Daniel in 2008 to start La Boîte, a biscuits and spice shop in New York.
“La Boite means the box. Olivier actually came up with this idea many years ago. I was no longer working for him, but I went to visit and said I was going to start a cookie company. Olivier said it would be really cool if the name were The Cookie Box – La Boîte à Biscuits. Later we added La Boîte à Épices – The Spice Box,” says Lior, who eventually shortened the name to La Boîte.
“I have a big love and passion for baking, sweet and savory. I started with the idea of these biscuits, which are like cookies in the European style – smaller, more delicate and intricate. I was excited to showcase spices in these tiny little cookies and sweet preparations because that’s not something that you usually find, especially not in the United States. It’s a great platform still today for me to explore new flavor combinations and different spices, which allow us to reduce the sugar amount in a lot of the dough and fillings we make.”
No spice combination it off limits. During the past 13 years, Lior has made biscuits with traditional flavors like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and then experimented with mustard seeds and white peppercorns and everything in between. He tries not to repeat the biscuits. Everything is worth exploring, even if some adjustments need to be made.
“We currently have a cookie that’s chocolate chip with ajwain seeds, which are traditionally used in India for curries. They can be overwhelming, bitter and like over-the-top oregano, so we had to fine-tune the recipe. It’s very interesting because when we bake them it really smells like cheese. Once it cools down it doesn’t. People often ask if we make pizzas because it really smells like melted cheese yet it’s chocolate, flour and ajwain seeds.”
One of Lior’s goals is to encourage more experimentation with spice, whether among home cooks or professional chefs, he sees education as the key to culinary adventurism.