Chef Lior Lev Sercarz has been driven throughout his life in the pursuit of the delicious by his sense of adventure. Read more about his childhood here.
Your life has been really action-packed with travel and adventure. When did you decide that you were going to be a chef?
I travelled in South America for a year. I cooked a lot. I became the designated cook for the group, in fact. Everyone else went everywhere and saw things they were “supposed” to see, and I just cooked. I obsessed over the markets, the variety of vegetables and proteins, and that’s what made me start to think that I should potentially pursue cooking as a career. The exploration part of it was what was and still is to me the big driver of my love of food. Some people get it from home, but for me, I had a need to look for what else was out there. What haven’t I tried yet? What haven’t I cooked yet? I travel for food. It’s how I’m able to meet people and discover. It’s also beyond food— it’s the culture, the history, it’s humankind.
When was the last time you tried something new that really blew your mind?
On a trip to India last year, I tasted fresh young cumin seeds while in the field. I was blown away by the scent and the taste. They are completely different from dried seeds, which are somewhat animal and gamey-- the fresh seeds are soft, very delicate, with some bright acid notes. Maybe one day someone will sell them fresh. If I could get them regularly, I would eat them in a salad, or over fresh cheese or yogurt. They’d be great with raw fish as well. When I try something new, I wouldn’t say I obsess over it, but I do like to explore my recent findings in as many ways as possible.
What inspired you to make your first spice blend?
I became interested in cooking not because I wanted to be a chef— I just liked to eat things. I think I made my first spice blend as a teenager, living in the kibbutz. We did a lot of grilling then, and I remember throwing spices and herbs together and combining them with oil, and rubbing this mixture on the fish, and cooking it over a fire.
I create blends based on a moment, experience, or dish that I ate. I always start with a story that affected me, and then create the blend that can tell that story to whoever uses that blend. This is what leads me to choosing the separate ingredients, and then creating some sort of balance between them. It is about scent, taste, texture— and hopefully emotion, too.
Is there one spice or food that is absolute staple for you, or that brings you comfort?
Food satisfies your physical needs, but it goes a great way to comfort people. It satisfies in many ways. It’s not just one spice for me— the overall scent of spices brings me joy and comfort. Walking into my spice lab, or even just walking into La Boîte makes me happy every day.
What keeps you excited to keep exploring and learning about food?
I’m fascinated by how food is made and where it’s from. I am fascinated with operations. How is something fermented, bottled, extruded? There is so much to learn. How could you be bored? I find process extremely interesting, but that organizational aspect is potentially where you lose people in the kitchen.
Speaking of process-- how do you create your spice blends at home?
To make a spice blend, I first create a concept. Then I choose and measure ingredients. Some spices get toasted, some do not. You don’t have to toast any of them--it can add complex notes, but there’s also always the risk that they burn. I usually only toast whole spices. I then grind some of them using different grinders, and keep some of them whole. Then I blend the spices together, and I start cooking!
Have your kids (Lennon, age 5, and Luca, age 7), created any blends of their own? Any surprise winners?
My kids haven’t made their own blends yet-- but I was very surprised the other day when both of my sons loved my Tangier N.23 spice. It has cumin and cinnamon. I am most impressed with their sense of smell-- it is much better than mine!
Do you create blends with specific dishes or preparations in mind?
I don’t impose any restrictions on my blends-- there are things that work well in certain categories, but I don’t say you can only use a blend for this, or it won’t work on this.
You can add spices into everything— I mean everything— that you eat and drink.
That goes for sweet, savory, really anything. Add spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, or cayenne pepper to coffee or tea. You may not consider breakfast a “spicy meal” but try something like smoked salt on toast, ground coriander and chili in eggs, or cardamom on your yogurt. Use the same open mind to add spice to snack time, lunch, and dinner. My advice is to just try a small amount before adding a spice to the whole dish. My kids like cinnamon on sliced apples, ginger and carrots, cumin and coriander on hummus, poppy seeds with cheese and crackers, and fleur de sel on peanut butter.