Spice master Chef Lior Lev Sercarz gave a zestful talk about his life, career, the art of flavor, and his new book The Spice Companion at Williamsburg’s Museum of Food & Drink (62 Bayard Street) this past Thursday night. Lior was an engaging speaker, and it’s obvious that when he’s talking about spices, he’s speaking directly from his heart.
He asked the audience how many times we’d actually tasted the spices in our cupboards, by themselves. I cook a lot, but I’ve probably never shoveled a lone spoonful of paprika into my mouth. Lior’s point: these are ingredients we’re putting into our cooking every day, so why aren’t we tasting them? Why aren’t we smelling them? We should be giving ourselves a sensory vocabulary of spices so that we know how to use them as creative culinary tools. He passed a few spices around to the audience for us to taste and smell—turmeric, cayenne, ancho chile powder, ginger, cinnamon, cocoa powder. I noticed that when confronted with the spice itself, it allowed me to really get to know the depth of its personality, while imagining where I could go with it in a way that just wouldn’t happen if I muddled it into a recipe.
Spices have no expiration date, but they do lose their punch after a while. A lot of folks probably have spices in their cupboard that are 5, 10 even 20 years old—well past their prime. “You’re better off digging up some dirt off the corner than seasoning with that,” Lior remarked. He says that a good rule of thumb is to mark your spices with a date one year out from the time you bought it. Most spices will be at peak flavor for one year. Use your spices, and taste them often, he says. Make your own blends, and buy only what you need (and not in bulk). Don’t put them in the freezer.
Most of us can’t live without salt and pepper, but with hundreds of spices from all over the world to choose from, Lior wonders why we all default to that duo, when other combinations of sodium and heat could give our dishes more impact. After being trained in Lyon and then working as a chef in New York at Daniel for a number of years, Lior started experimenting with spices—sourcing them, making blends at home, and finally opening up his own spice shop La Boîte in Hell’s Kitchen ten years ago. After tasting and working with Lior’s spices, culinary legend Eric Ripert told Lior he wanted to reset his kitchen, rebuild a menu from the ground up, and use Lior’s spice blends as a foundation. Spices are pretty badass.
“I was born into the worst culinary scene in the world,” Lior said of his upbringing in a kibbutz in 1970s Israel. “Everything was grey or brown and you just ate so you don’t die… Nobody took pleasure in the food,” he continued. As a child, he learned to cook when his mother was working late. As in many kitchens of the day, her spice cabinet was limited. He recalled asking her why he couldn’t use the store-bought Soup Spice Blend with other types of dishes besides soup, and she didn’t really have an answer, except, well, that’s only for soup. So his childhood experiences of bland food and unexciting cooking gave him an innate curiosity about spices and set the stage for his future career as The Spice Guy.
Lior is always collaborating with New York’s top chefs to create custom spice blends, and recently he worked with Brooklyn Brewery to create a beer, which we were able to sample. The Belgian-inspired Tripel Burner was nutty and spicy with a hint of licorice—perfectly balanced. After Lior’s talk, I was totally sold on this spice thing; I immediately went home to clean out my spice cabinet and start fresh.
MOFAD has a full calendar of fun evening talks and culinary exploration events. Their current exhibit is CHOW, which is an exploration into the evolution of Chinese American restaurants. Lior’s new book The Spice Companion: A Guide To The World of Spices is available on Amazon.
MOFAD | 62 Bayard Street