I think that one thing that we always did and will continue to set us apart at La Boîte is we are a food company. We think food, we think flavor, we think creativity. Our way to express it is via spices and other pantry items. We are not a spice company in terms of buying and selling. So my 30 and something years as a chef play a huge role in the people who work at La Boîte we're just really geeks when it comes to food and ingredients.
That's kind of the thing that drives us. So a quick background. I'm from Israel, from a small kibbutz in the Galilee. I always had a passion for ingredients. Like, you know, before foraging was a thing, we just went and picked berries and went fishing in the river next to the kibbutz and whatever was in season, that's what we ate. Now it's cool. Back then, it was just being a child and riding the bike to do things before the whole Scandinavian movement made foraging into a thing. Traveled quite a bit with my parents to Europe, and I think that also was a big part of my curiosity of ingredients. Israel, back then, the food scene was not very exciting.
Now it is probably one of the most exciting food scenes in the world, but in the seventies it wasn't. So, traveling in Europe, being exposed to different proteins and produce and cooking techniques really kind of added another layer. And then fast forward to military service, and after that, I decided to kind of get involved in cooking on a professional level at first with no experience.
Then culinary school in France, and then moving to New York. And then opening La Boîte 16 years ago as a result of seeing the sad status, if you will, of the spice cabinets or racks in restaurants or in people's homes and taking upon ourselves this mission of conveying the message that spices are an ingredient.
They're not an afterthought. And the same way that you take the time to buy great produce and protein, you should do the same when it comes to spices. Now, the challenge was, and still is to some extent, is where do you get good spices? Because what's available around you isn't necessarily the case. So I've spent the last 16 years and still am to date, in terms of traveling or traveling online, finding the best sources, purveyors, brokers, importers.
There's a whole supply chain from the farmer to us. And establishing just really trustworthy relationships where I know that our broker isn't even going to try to sell us something that they know we're not gonna like, even if they're losing some money. And so it's upsetting to some extent, but it makes me happy that there's buffers.
It's hard to get to the level of the farmer in most cases, or to the single origin, single sourcing, knowing that a lot of these farmers grow very little. They don't always have the means to connect directly with you. They're not set up for export or import. We're very open about where we get things and where we get them from.
We strive to get the best possible and do the right thing with our partners around the world and make sure that they get paid on time, the right price. At the same time, we have to be conscious of sustainability, of being able to get products all the time, so there's that. That plays too, and a lot more regulation that every year just becomes more and more complicated.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:09]:
What are some of the biggest challenges you've had in recent years with sourcing really good spices?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:08:09]:
A couple of things. First of all, you know, obviously COVID, that just delayed everything in terms of speed of getting things and unloading boats with material. We haven't seen any shortage or outage of something dramatically, let's put it that way.
And luckily, climate change has not affected the quality that much. We have seen just lower production in areas like Japan for sancho, where crops were just smaller this year. It's a bit upsetting because it's a product that we love, but at the same time, it puts us in perspective and our partners that we work with, explaining to them that seasonality is still a factor in our lives.
You know, the same way that you cannot buy ramps in September, sancho has a season, there's X amount of it. And it's okay. I think it's wrong that you can buy strawberries outside of the season, but that's market demand. So I think in the spice world, some things are still very hyper seasonal. There's still some climate change that affected vanilla a few years ago.
There are political issues, and as an example, mustard seeds, which seems like the most obvious thing. I mean, you go to the store. You want to buy mustard? We've had, I wouldn't say a crisis, but a pretty bad situation in the last year and a half or so where Canada, which is the biggest producer in the world of mustard seeds and really great quality, had a drought of sorts.
So lower crops. COVID happened too. And then, well, you'd say there's probably a backup option to Canada. Where else can we get mustard from? And the second biggest producer happens to be Ukraine. So I don't need to explain myself. So it goes to the point where finding whole grain mustard at the supermarket becomes challenging. Prices are three times as much as they were a year and a half or two years ago.
So those are all small things that impact our day-to-day life. Not to mention packaging and trucking delays. But overall, I think that I'm glad we're over this COVID run and restaurants are back up and running and people are cooking. I think that if there is a positive impact to the last two years is that people learn how to cook or learn how to use their kitchen, use spices.There's more interest. And I think that that was quite a good learning curve for a lot of people to really connect with cooking.
Josh Sharkey [00:10:49]:
Yeah. It's interesting you talked about sourcing produce and things like that, and we think about that. Yeah. And you know, in the restaurants, you know, we're maniacal about like, what farm did this kale come from and did we know the farmer that raised this pig?
And what did the pig eat? And I don't remember ever having conversations about that, about the spices that we're buying. What do you see as some of the most common misconceptions about spices that we use in the restaurant? You've come from the restaurant world. You see the giant tubs of black peppercorns we get and all those things. You know we don't think we think twice about where did that come from and who sourced it. What are some of those, like most common things that you see as misconceptions for spices?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:11:34]:
I think it goes back to education. I think as cooks, we all start somewhere. We start in a restaurant, we have a chef or we go to a culinary school, and I'm fighting really hard to change curriculum in culinary schools, and we can talk about my project later on building the culinary school in Israel
As a young cook, the idea of seasoning is not taught anywhere. This gesture is selecting the product. And like you said, I walk every week or every couple of days into a kitchen without naming any names, whether it's fine dining or fast casual and whatnot. And you do see these gigantic tubs of peppercorn and paprika and cumin, and just visually, you can tell that the product is bad or not good.
It's feeded, it's powdered, it falls apart. And I often have these chats with our partners like, what is wrong with you? I mean, don't you care? And it's hard because for some reason, which I don't necessarily have the answer for, you would spend lots of money on protein and produce and your wine cellar, but then fundamental stuff that you season your food with, for some reason people are like, well, I could kind of compromise here. I can cut corners.
I think it's also a lack of knowledge. I think that once you see or taste good pepper or cumin or paprika, and I'm just talking about the basic everyday things, then you understand. As an example, I got to cook with a bunch of Israeli friends not that long ago, and so it was their first time in the US and there's like, what is wrong with your salt here?
I was like, what do you mean? It's like, it's not salty. It has no flavor and it's true that when you compare and I like cautious salt, do I use it? No, it's not salty.
Josh Sharkey [00:13:15]:
What's your go-to salt?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:13:15]:
One of my favorites is actually gray salt, which doesn't get enough good PR. I love gray salt. Unrefined. High iodine. Smells like the ocean. Great texture. Not expensive even. It's super affordable. Just great stuff. I obviously use some fine sea salt and some Fleur de Sel and Maldon of course. But on a day to day, it's pretty much fine sea salt and gray salt, but really good ones. So either Pacific sea salt or French sea salt with higher salinity content to it.
And we see success. It's a long battle-ish with our partners just trying to convert them. Trying to get them to use the right vocabulary. Not saying I want Black Pepper is getting more specific, like what variety. So it's nice when we see emails coming in with orders and somebody will order Cherry Black Pepper and Muntok White or Penja White or Malabar pepper. And so the same that you'll order an A five or a grass fed where, you don't just call your purveyors like, I need a steak. They're like, I need more than that.
Josh Sharkey [00:14:17]:
Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting. I feel like there's such a noticeable difference too in terms of how much you need when you have really good anise seeds or cumin. You need much less than you think. There's recipes where if you use the amount of cumin, but with high quality cumin, it would be way too powerful. And I think that there's also this concept of probably like they're saving money by buying the spices from the brand we won’t name. And they’re not.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:14:58]:
We see it all the time. It's like exactly what you're saying. Like, oh, but you are 30% more expensive. Sure. Yes, we are for a variety of reasons. We get great products. We pay the farmers or the suppliers. And the product itself is just better quality. And like you just said, you'll need less of it.
And we hear it all the time from people, especially if we do blending services for them, which we do a lot more and more. We take their formula, we don't even touch it, we just use our spices. We send it back to them. It's like, oh my God, I now need to use 20, 30, 40% less because it's so pungent and strong. And so at the end of the day, you're paying the same price. And I think that other partners see the benefit and are charging slightly more. We have a great relationship with a falafel shop in Philadelphia where you know, their average ticket is probably eight $9 for a falafel sandwich and a soda or something and their portion of their french fries.
Now, like spice wise, it's probably $1.50, but they just decided to up the price and sales of french fries are up 40, 50%. Customers are coming back for fries and they want that great flavor. The fine dining equivalent will be, do you want the pasta with the added $30 of shaved truffle? Or do you just want the pasta? So I think that there's great opportunities and you don't need a lot like you just said to make any.
Josh Sharkey [00:16:21]
I want to talk about your blending process too. Cause I think part of that quality and freshness is also the texture, right? Because I've chewed on cumin seeds that I've bought from Guatemala, like you can eat them whole.
And you, you can't do that with an old sort of generic human seed. And what I love about your blends is there's always like a little bit of texture to them, and I think it seems like it's a part of your process, but I'd love to learn like, what is your process of when you're creating like new blends, whether it's like for a chef or just in general for the company.
Like how do you go about thinking about the blend and how do you actually test it? Are you using just plain mediums like yogurt and bread, or are you doing different techniques when you're testing blends? I'd love to hear a little bit more about the process.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:17:14]:
I eat spices all day long, especially if we get a new batch, a new delivery. I'll put some kind of chew on it or kind of grind it and taste it and want to evaluate the quality, make sure of what we're getting. So that's part one. It's really evaluating the raw material as it comes. If I'm creating blends for, let's say myself, like my initial ideas, there's an idea, a concept, something that I'm excited to create. But if I'm working with another chef or another professional, I want to hear their thoughts. I mean, where do they want to go with it?
What's the flavor? And scent profile? Is there a specific dish that they're actually looking to use this for? And it's just great to work with them. You know, they're really excited to see the result and. I will make a blend. We have a little test kitchen here at Spice Lab. We, like you said, will either put some on yogurt, olive oil, some bread, but even cook a piece of meat, fish, a vegetable before we send it to that chef or that professional to make sure that it actually works, and then I let them play and get their feedback.
Glad to say that for the most part, it's getting to the point where there's less and less adjustment or none at all, or they're very minor. I think that really listening from the beginning to their needs and what they're trying to achieve and, and I know most of them over time and you know what works and what doesn't and what they like and what they don't.
So that's really helpful and like I said earlier, the fact that myself, my culinary director and other members here come from the culinary world. We can see the application right away on how it's going to work in a kitchen. We don't need to imagine and guess, and I think with time and a lot of people that you and I know in common, once you get better or good at this thing called cooking, a lot of it is done in your head.I mean, you could start imagining these combinations and if they're going to work and if they're not gonna work and think that's really beautiful when you can get to that level.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:14]:
I want to definitely dig into how you collaborate with the chefs, but even just the blends that you guys create that everybody can use. I was looking last night, I think there's over 384 recipes in meez from chefs that just used the Cancale, the Fleur de Sel blend. I mean that one's amazing. The Salvador is also obviously used a ton. The Salvador, number 19, and the Izak. Anybody who hasn't used these blends as a chef, I would definitely check them out.
The Izak is incredible. I love The Salvador as well. You're clearly like creating blends that can be used in multiple ways. And I want to dig into how chefs learn about La Boîte and how they can learn more. But who are some of the chefs that you've collaborated with and sort of custom blends with?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:20:01]:
Having worked with Daniel Boulud for so many years, that was, and still is an amazing partnership. And Daniel being a real mentor and always kind of a point of contact for any advice or question. So that was the first and most obvious relationship. We spoke earlier about Marc Forgione, but Marc was one of our first customers. I met Marc through the BLT era, and so both were first to jump on board and say, we have a meat purveyor, we have a produce company we'd like for you to be our spice company. I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to us. These two great chefs saying, you know, we could do everything in house if we wanted to. But we don't, we just want to buy from the best possible sources and focus on cooking, you know?
And then later on got a very long, amazing partnership with Eric Ripurt and some other places around the country, Gavin Kaysen from Minneapolis. We both worked for Daniel and he is now doing incredible things in Minneapolis and in Florida. We have Michelle Bernstein and on the West Coast, the list goes on and on and hopefully, I mean, I forgot like another 300 or so of our partners.
Cocktail, bar programs, pastry chef and beer brewers and distillers. So the list goes on and on. It's really humbling and great when we get an email from somebody saying, I worked at this restaurant. I was a line cook, I was a sous chef. I'm now opening my own thing, or I'm going to work for somebody else and would love to bring you on board. Or somebody recommended it. So, which is obviously the best compliment.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:41]:
Yeah, I imagine that's a big part of how. You've grown in the chef community. That's what I've seen for sure, is all of these chefs like, oh, I worked at Jean-Georges, I worked for Daniel, I worked here and I worked for Forgione. And they may not be able to have their own custom spice blend with La Boîte, but they're using the blends. How would a chef go about saying, Lior, can I create a custom blend with you? How does that work?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:22:01]:
For the most part, those are existing partners. It's rare that somebody will just come with a non-existing account. It does happen and we're happy to do it. It's slightly harder because I just don't know them that well.
But whether it's that or an existing partner, it's just picking up the phone, sending an email saying, Hey, can we do a custom blend? And the answer is yes. It might take a minute because there's a long list of projects in the making plus our regular 400 or so blends that we already make. So often enough I'll start with like, Hey, have you tried one of these that we already have that they just didn't know that existed?
So that's sometimes what works, but if they still want to pursue it, we'll make it. It could be a day, it could be a week, it could be a month depending on how fast they can go and depending on my schedule too, because I want to make sure I clear enough time to work on that blend properly.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:07]:
What are like the most common blends that chefs are using sort of across the board? I'm sure that they're using a ton of them, but there are some that sort of rise to the top as the most common ones.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:23:11]:
The one that we already make you mean? I mean you mentioned some of our best sellers ever. I mean, Cancale, I don't think we even have any stock of it. If we make it, it's gone.
Our pepper blend, Pierre Poivre, which is the same thing. So those are the two big ones. The smoke salt, definitely high on the list. Izak that you mentioned. Shabazi spice. For years, I didn't want to do shawarma spice just because I didn't think I owned that space and I didn't really know what it meant.
But then a great story, a dear friend of mine said, can you not only make me one Shawarma blend, but make me two? One that's more kind of a North African approach, and then one that's more Turkish without thinking, I made a Shawarma West and a Shawarma East and it’s insane the amount of that that we know in the last two years sell of those two. Not to mention zaatar, which it's again, it's by the pallet.
Josh Sharkey [00:24:15]:
What style of zaatar do you produce?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:24:15]:
We make something that's closer to a Lebanese blend, between a Lebanese-Syrian, so it's pretty fine ground aside from the sesame, obviously. So there's no big chunks. High sumac content, great zaatar leaves in there. We also sell zaatar leaves themselves, which is a fun ingredient.
Part of the big change is Middle Eastern cooking, becoming more and more popular. Mediterranean, you know, the whole Israeli movement, the way you see these products now featured even in French, Italian or any other restaurants, which I love the fact that there's not the fusion movement, but the infusion is how you can bring flavors from something else into your different type of cuisine, if you will.
I'm actually just going to like to use you as an encyclopedia, but I noticed there isn't like a quote unquote ras el hanout blend, although you have like the Tangier, which is similar to that. But I always thought that ras el hanout just basically meant the same thing as masala, like it's just a blend of spices from the spice shop. Is there actually a definition, like this is what ras el hanout is supposed to be?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:25:26]:
Not really. I mean, most people will agree that there's things like cinnamon and some clove and maybe some black pepper, some cardamon. But aside from that, you are on your own in terms of what you want to put. You'll find in some traditional ones, cubeb berries, which is quite interesting because they come from Indonesia.
But that has to do with the trade and the wholesale back in the day. But aside from that, like everybody has their garam masala or their tandoori and so on and so forth. I love tradition and I love the respect of tradition, but I think it's up to us to also write our own kind of tradition so you can twist and make whatever you want.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:14]:
I don't think I've seen anything. But have you ever played around with anything from Mexican cultures? Anything you sort of like these Oaxacan spice blends used for? For moles and things like that?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:26:14]:
So we are working on a mole for a client at the moment using sesame seeds, which could be found in parts of Mexico. We're not there yet. I mean, we still have a couple of tweaks to do. I think that's probably the only kind of Mexican oriented blend that we currently do. We do work a lot with Mexican oregano and you know, obviously a bunch of chilies and things like that. But for now, this is kind of the only. I tried miserably to make a tajin just because people were excited to try that. But I still need to perfect that.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:51]:
Any like spices at the moment that you're super excited about?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:26:54]:
Always kind of going back to the classic cumin, cinnamon couple of chilies and working with that. The zaatar leaves in the last couple of years. So also using that quite a bit and Urfa Chili, which, you know, I could just not get enough of it, you know, it's just so addictive and so good.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:23]:
You seem to really love Urfa. Like what? Why do you love Urfa Chili so much?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:27:27]:
So I kind of took a break from Peppercorns for a minute and tried to educate myself more about chilis, you know, the different ones and we carry a certain amount. To me, urfa biber is a combination of, it's not just the heat. The heat is definitely there, but it's that chocolate cocoa wine note. It's so complex. Everything just in one item. I go to phases where I'll just cook only with urfa and then move on to the next thing. Yeah, so I'm still on that.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:58]:
I want to make sure we talk about the culinary school, but before we get to that, we talked in the beginning about why you started doing this. Obviously you worked for some incredible chefs and after working with Daniel Boulud, you decided, okay, America doesn't have any sort of good spice options. And so you started this, but how did you think about the future of the spice market in America?
Like do you think it's getting more embraced now? But it's still pretty minimal. The world of the brand not to be named lemon pepper and chili powder and things like that, that are ubiquitous in America. Do you see that going away anytime soon?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:28:31]:
No, I don't think so. I think there's a place for a good lemon pepper. And it's hard for me to even say that, but like for pumpkin spice, as long as you are using spices, I'm happy. I think that obviously I would like for people to make the right choice. I can tell you from what I see happening in our world, even the larger companies are stepping up their game in terms of packaging, messaging, and sourcing.
There was very little competition, if at all. And the consumer is becoming smarter and more knowledgeable. People travel, people eat in ethnic restaurants. They now know the difference. Even in the barbecue industry where you know, you're like, oh, why does it matter? Because it goes into a smoker. It does matter, and people are starting to make the change and the difference.
So I think that's not going away and that's great, but at the same time you want to call it, the craft spice industry is becoming bigger. You see better spice aisles in large supermarkets. You see more interesting ingredients. So I think we're heading in a very, very good direction.
Josh Sharkey [00:29:44]
Obviously you are far more well-versed than I am on this, but I would assume that the majority of our spices are imported. Do you see America starting to produce better spices? Domestically?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:29:54]
As now a proud American citizen, and having lived here for 21 years, I'm all about domestic farming. I love our partners in different countries, but I think we could do more. There's land, there's potential. We, as an example, only use domestic sesame, I think it's fantastic. We try to buy as much garlic, onion, and things that are available. There's either not enough of it or we're just competing with the large scale manufacturers. And I'm always excited when somebody points me out to a grower here in the US. It's great. So I hope there will be more. I hope this culture of growing spices, drying spices will get bigger.
Josh Sharkey [00:30:32]:
You know, I was in Austin for a food event a while back, and I didn't realize that these lime leaves grow everywhere. And you know, people pick them off and they're using it in their restaurants, but clearly there's enough sort of different types of climates in America where we could have more spices growing here. What do you think needs to happen? Are you working on anything, you know, with any sort of farmers or anything to try to bolster production in America?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:30:53]:
We're not working directly with anybody. I think the biggest challenge is not so much the growing of it, it's the processing, which requires space for drying, dehydrating, grinding. And so I always try to have a constructive conversation with this farmer, saying, you have surplus growth instead of hurrying to the market right away, think about growing something that's gonna be dried right away or freeze dried or whatever.
And then the shelf life is so much longer. The challenge is that the price is often tricky and not that exciting for the farmer to spend time on it and the time to process and the space that they need. So I'm hoping that more and more people will see the reasoning behind it, the financial benefits of doing that.
I don't think we'll ever be able to be a hundred percent domestic. It's just climate-wise, it's very challenging. But we're working with a vanilla company that if all goes well within two to maybe three years, you'll be able to set up your own greenhouse and grow vanilla from start to finish from the growing to the curing with an automated, semi-automated system that's AI based and.
Will allow better control and better quality and flavor. They're currently aging via something that I don't even understand half of how they do it. They're aging vanilla beans for our specific profile, which we should get in about a month or two.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:26]:
Sort of like with smallhold mushrooms. I mean people can literally grow and cure their own vanilla beans?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:32:50]:
They analyze a lot of vanilla in its life and think what are the components? And by developing a technology of drying, a combination of heat and time and air, they're able to age vanilla to a different profile to enhance vanillin inside of the bean to be 10 times higher or even more, but also develop profiles that are a bit more smoky or savory. I went to visit their facility in Israel. It's pretty amazing what they do there, and they're looking into developing these kits where you can grow your own vanilla.
Josh Sharkey [00:33:19]
That is so cool, man. You mentioned Israel, so I'm just going to jump into the culinary school. Can you talk a little about what you're working on there?
Lior Lev Ssercarz [00:33:30]:
We're building a place called Galilee Culinary Institute, or GCI for short. It’s set to open in May of 2024. I went to school in France. My parents were very unhappy that I wanted to become a cook to begin with, but they also were unhappy that I left the country and basically never came back. And since that day, I think in 1997, I was always thinking about bringing culinary education to Israel.
Things have changed quite a bit. There's a handful of smaller or slightly bigger culinary schools in Israel. Some devoted just to cooking, some for baking, some for both, a couple of high schools. But as I was working on it for over 20 years and was trying to find a partner to fund this, which I have, they're called Jewish National Fund.
They're amazing in their support and building it. The idea was to really challenge the education as a concept. I mean, is college too long? Are you learning the relevant things that you actually need once you graduate? What's the rate of success in the real market? And so we've spent four or five years thinking of that, and came up with the concept of GCI which is a campus that includes a restaurant, a wine bar, a coffee shop, a beer brewery, a chocolate lab, auditoriums, and classes.
It's open to students from all over the world as well as visitors, of course. So aside from being a student, you should just be able to come in, dine, eat, hang out, drink. Can take a one hour class. A one week class. But our flagship program is a 12 month program in English. Again, open to students from all over the world.
No background needed, no prior experience. Just have to go to a series of interviews and really spend 12 months exploring cooking, making cheese, making wine, distilling, and knife making. And so on and so forth. Just give you a better idea of where you want to go with it once you graduate with tools in management and basic legal work and all of that so that you are better prepared, whether you're going to go to work at a restaurant, open your own, whether you're gonna work in a lab for a food manufacturer, be a food stylist, a food writer.
We want to kind of work with our students to understand where they want to go with it, and the fact that you. Like to make an egg doesn't mean that you need to become a cook. Maybe just an amazing writer or or creative, and you could go into that direction.
Josh Sharkey [00:35:59]:
Like you said, it's not just gonna be for learning how to cook, but for all these adjacent parts of the food world, which clearly you're doing one of those things, but how are you going about teaching those things, if it's journalism or e-commerce or something? Are you just creating separate classes just for that or are you just given sort of like a foundation that they can go learn more?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:36:10]:
We're working with great partners on curriculum. And so we're utilizing their sets of skills on how to write curriculum, but for them it's a, it's a super exciting thing because they come from traditional culinary education where you're evaluated on your knife skills and your French Classic mother sauces.
And I said, don't get me wrong, I like knife skills, but let's first go and visit a knife maker and talk about carbon steel and handles and all of that. And so there's not about really failing or getting an A plus or a B minus. Did you understand what a knife is? And potentially you decide to become a knife maker and one of your other classmates will become a farmer.
So we're trying to expose students to as much as we can with an hour course, 10 hour course, depending on what it is. How do you do cupping? How do you taste coffee? If you were to open a restaurant, coffee is a big part of it. Do you even note how to evaluate that? So it's utilizing a lot of professionals from around the world and Israel in their fields.
I think one of the funniest examples is our AC company that is designing our AC systems. And so I engaged the head designer of that firm to come and teach a two hour course about ventilation and ac. Now often it's like I came here to cook, just give me a steak and a knife and some. I want to cook, and I would argue saying you could be the best cook on the planet if your AC system is down in your restaurant.
Good luck to you, my friend, running a service. So when you do call that maintenance company or are there things that you could do on your own? To me, it's as valuable as knowing how to cook a steak properly to a medium rare.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:59]:
Oh my God, I wish I had culinary school like that and not being sold 30 tons of AC when you really only need seven and over engineering that way. Man, that's such a cool approach to culinary school. I also feel a little influence of the kibbutz in there and you know, you can kind of do whatever works best for you. So I feel like that little bit of that influence from your childhood is showing up there.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:37:59]:
I told the curriculum team. Listen, if you want to put in a three hour fly fishing class, I'm all for it. We are fortunate enough to build this in the Galilee. There's Drews communities, Christian Palestinians, Lebanese Syrians, Eastern Europeans, I mean all within a mile away from each other. You could see caviar production, winemaking, distilling, and cheesemaking. There's a food science center right there with an amazing lab.
That's really the part, not to mention that we have a six acre farm just for the school where students could really work with their peers by saying, okay, you know, our next menu at the restaurant is going to be something. Let's just grow that for the next menu. Or let’s bring everything back and compost it and put it back into the ground.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:19]:
Man, I can't wait to come check this out. I'm the only one in my family that has not been to Israel. I'm definitely making it there for that. That is so exciting, man. I had no idea the way you're going about it. But you said May 2024. How do people in the States learn more about that?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:39:36]:
We have a website called galileeculinaryinstitute.com.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:40]:
Okay, cool. We'll put that in the show notes for sure.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:39:45]:
Galileeculinaryinstitute.com. Go there. There's a ton of information. You can just contact one of our team members. You could start a pre-application for the program. Sign up for our monthly newsletter. And just simply, I mean, just email me. I mean, just send me an email, email@example.com for any questions, coaching, life support, or just to chit chat. I think that going back to the COVID days, which reinforced our communities as cooks and culinarians and the support that we can lend each other. We all go through the same thing, whether you're a restaurant owner, a spice company owner, or a wine importer, I think we need to talk more to each other as a group, as a whole.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:28]:
Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of life support, I was going to ask you, because I think you have kids too, right? My kids at least, my son, barely eats anything. Do spices help them open up to more food?
Josh Sharkey [00:40:37]:
I call it the chef's curse. I have two amazing kids that are very savvy New Yorkers, even though they're only seven and nine, but they know everything about everything. The youngest will eat pretty much everything. From mussels to lamb, fish, and everything in between. However, the child will not eat a piece of strawberry or blueberry, which seems very interesting to me.
The older one. At the same time, I will only eat fruits, vegetables, and yogurt and would not touch a piece of meat or fish or even pasta. So it's something that I'm fascinated by. If I had more time, I think I would devote myself to kids' food and understanding why they like or don't like something.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:23]:
I'm really fascinated about this. We actually have a food therapist right now working with our son, and my son loves to cook with me and we make all kinds of fresh pasta and all kinds of things together, but he literally will eat four things. He'll only eat the very, very high quality feta. It won't eat the crumbled stuff. It has to be like the, you know, the block with a really nice brine, sheep's milk, feta and nuts and seeds, and that's basically it. Maybe some bread. I think it’s a texture thing.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:41:53]:
Yeah, I think, you know, one of them is very sensitive to smell, which is challenging, but makes me happy at the same time. I mean, as somebody who, that's my profession, but there's hope, you know, I married a vegetarian who now eats only meat pretty much.
So I think it's a matter of time. I think stress definitely doesn't help. I think that I am more relaxed about it now. I was more stressed as a young father. Obviously, nobody gives you a handbook of the dos and don't, the one thing I would say is just one day at a time, what was valid yesterday isn’t valid tomorrow. And then I just ask them what they want to eat and that's what they get to eat.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:28]:
Yeah,I think exposure is probably the best thing. You know, just keep exposing them to it and eventually they, you know, they get it. We'll move away from kids. I wanted to talk for a minute about Pierre Poivre and Olivier Roellinger, because it seems like they have been a really big influence on you. So I'm always curious about who are people's mentors and how those two had a big influence on you. I'd love to hear why and are you still in contact. I'd love to hear a little more of that.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:43:05]:
So I was in culinary school in ‘97 to ‘99 in France, and part of school required you to do a stodge internship or externship. And so I did my first one in the south of France near Spain in the Catalan area. And then for my last year in school, I applied to work at Les Maisons de Bricourt, which is a restaurant in a small town called Cancale. That's the name of the blend I made. Later on, I got a very nice letter saying thank you, but no thank you, but for some reason decided to send a second letter and somehow to this date, I don't even know what made the change.
I got a letter from Olivier's wife, Jane, saying we would be happy to make an exception. We never take any stodgers, just show up in April, whatever. 1999, et cetera. So I showed up to this beautiful little town on the coast of Brittany near Mont-Saint-Michel and back then it was a two Michelin Star restaurant. I think I was there at 1:30 in the afternoon, went up, put up my stuff, and by 4:30 I was in the kitchen and started to cook. I knew that Olivier Roellinger was the head chef and the fascinating story of a person that nearly died in a very brutal attack by some gangsters in his hometown of Saint-Malo, and decided to quit his engineering studies to become a cook and a chef.
And within two years, got a Michelin star and then two, and then really became a world renowned chef and influence. I see it when I travel and I eat at a restaurant, you say the word Roellinger and people are like, oh my God, that's the reason I cook. Or that really impacted my life.
Less known in the US obviously than in Europe. It's unfortunate because I think a lot of people could read his book, watch his movies, and understand he’s a great philosopher. So I ended up in that kitchen and I thought I knew something about food and something about spices and I was proven wrong in the very best possible way. I encountered spices that I never even heard of.
I saw how somebody cooks French cuisine in Brittany with some of the finest fish and seafood on the planet with spices from Indonesia and Madagascar and India, and really became fascinated with the notion of spices and Olivier being the great mentor that he's, for me and for others, was very smart in terms of having me do my own journey and research about taste and flavor and not just dictating this is what it tastes like.
To this date, we have a great friendship with him, his wife, his son who took over part of the business, and his daughter. They built a really beautiful business in Cancale and around it. Are we competitors to some extent? Kind of, you know, he has a really beautiful spice business. The handshake agreement was you stay in the US, I'll stay in France.
Let's not bother each other. They do buy a couple of products from us, which is always great. I admire what they do. And it's always great. I owe him a tremendous amount. The reason that La Boîte exists is that the name alone came from him. That was his idea.
Wait a second. I have somewhat poor French, but I'm pretty sure it just means the box, right?
Lior Lev [00:46:29]:
Yeah. So as I was leaving Daniel and Olivier got three Michelin stars. I happened to be in England for a wedding, and I was like, if I'm already here, I'm going to jump on a quick cheap flight to Saint-Malo, 35 minutes, not even maybe 40. I rented a car, made a reservation to eat at Les Maisons de Bricourt, which sadly doesn't exist anymore.
They only have the other restaurant, which is fantastic. I went there, got there at 6:45, dropped my bags at the bed and breakfast and went to eat there and the next day met Olivier for coffee. And saw him being a very fatherly figure. He is like, so my son, what's your plan? I was like, I'm leaving Daniel.
He was like, to do what? I was like, I have this idea of doing cookies first because that was the first company I'm gonna make these cookies and there's gonna be some art and some spices. And he was like, alright, just go do it. And by the way, I would, if it was me I would call it La Boite de Biscuits which just means the cookie box, which sounds obvious but it's the perfect name.
And so I went home and I started La Boite de Biscuits, and then when the spice business came around I called it La Boite Spices, and then at some point I just got rid of the rest of it and we just narrowed it to La Boite. It makes sense, you know, aside from being an actual box, it's a structure, it's a company, it goes beyond.
I also happen to collect boxes as a kind gig. I took some time off from that because I have no more room to store them. I have over 2000 different boxes dating anywhere from 1900. That's kind of how the name came about. And so when I started the spice business as a result of Marc Forgiorne and Laurent Tourondel asking me to blend spices for them. So one of the first blends was Cancale, as a tribute and homage to Olivier.
And then Laurel wanted a pepper blend for a steak. I can't remember. It's like, okay, let's pick a couple of blends together. I was looking for a name. I love naming blends. It's something that I'm really excited about, giving them a name. And I was doing some reading and I stumbled upon this personality named Pierre Poivre, which means Peter Pepper.
Fascinating story. Little did I know that he was from Leon and I probably passed next to his tombstone a thousand times because it's in the center of Leon in the church, and that's kind of how the name came about. And you know, 16 years later, it's the most sold blend that we make. I semi jokingly said that I hope it's gonna be on my tombstone, the creator of Pierre Poivre
It is now a trademark, or at least in the process of being registered. And I met somebody the other day who said that that's the only pepper they use for many years now, which is an amazing compliment.
Josh Sharkey [00:49:25]:
It is an incredible pepper blend. I'm not sure if Pierre Pouvre would be happy or sad about this, but if you search Pierre Poivre on Google, he does come up as the first result, but then every other result is from La Boite. So you’ve taken over his name
We reached out. We were, we're trying to do the research for the trademark. We can try to connect with the society. There's like a non-for-profit. We wanted to make sure that we're not offending anybody, and I hope we're making him proud, you know of being the rebel of the spice industry and really somebody to admire. So hopefully every time somebody uses a little bit, it makes him happy.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:08]:
Yeah, absolutely. And, and you started talking about his background, but I also think it's pretty fascinating how he was able to sort of bring spices to so many places where they didn't exist. And he worked for the French East India company, right?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:50:23]:
He was a religious person, sent on semi-religious, semi economic reasons by the French government back in the day to spread the word of God, but also kind of maintain the books and develop relationships. And we're talking about an era where spices were a reason to start a war. Think about Manhattan that’s part of the Amsterdam Treaty.
We live on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate on the planet that was probably traded for clove and nutmeg. You know, I'd like to buy an apartment here with a couple of cloves and nutmeg. I don't think it's no longer an option.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:59]:
Not right now, at least. That's awesome. And I love that story. I had no idea where La Boite came from either. Thanks for sharing that, man. We're wrapping up here. I wanted to sort of just ask you if there's anything that you would like to tell the audience. Like I said, it's probably. The majority of them, chefs, restaurant owners, mixologists, you know, just food professionals. Anything that you'd like to share?
Josh Sharkey [00:51:20]:
I really would like to invite everybody who's, who's listening to it and is involving food in one way or another, just rethink spices, you know, they deserve more attention. They deserve to be highlighted. You're doing justice to the growers and the vendors and this industry, which is fascinating. So the same amount of time, attention, and money that you're spending on anything else should be dedicated to spices. It takes you to a third dimension. I think it really makes a difference. We're obviously here.
We have people come here and visit us all the time. It's an open house. Come and see us and explore and just educate yourself more. Come to Israel. Next year, hopefully, you know, for May we'll be opening and also is a shameless plugin and you can cut it off. I mean, the next book is coming out June 13th. It's called a Middle Eastern Pantry.
It's really my tribute to the Middle East Pantry items and this whole culture of preserving, pickling, drying, and the notion of having a pantry, which for some reason doesn't exist anymore, and how you can make amazing food with these things, or how you can even make your own pantry items.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:32]:
We'll put that in the show notes as well. So what's the best way to get La Boite spices into a restaurant?
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:52:32]:
I just send an email to info to firstname.lastname@example.org or if you are ready to go, then it's just email@example.com. One of the team members will set you up, open an account, send you samples, and talk to somebody. We have a couple of people here, including myself, who can walk chefs through the process of what to get, how much to get. You know, as I said, again, it's not like dial one for this, dial seven for that. There's actual people that will pick up the phone and respond to the email and provide advice and consultation, if you will, in terms of what's the best possible things to get. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:16]:
All right, Lior, this was an awesome man. Thank you so much for taking some time. I know you've got a busy day.
Lior Lev Sercarz [00:53:21]:
And make sure you use meez. That's the most important. Do you have recipes? Put them in meez. It's all about the recipe.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:43]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Keep innovating, don't settle. Make today a little better than yesterday. And remember, it's impossible for us to learn what we think we already know. See you next time.