By Bob Krasner
It’s called SOS Chefs — Save Our Spices — but this is not just a spice shop. This is an East Village culinary version of a candy store, where the top chefs in NYC mingle with foodies and would be gourmets have come to be inspired since 1996.
Atef Boulaabi and her husband Adam Berkowitz run a shop that he calls a “work of passion.” While Berkowitz — a chef by trade — is content to stay in the background, Boulaabi is happy to regale the clientele with the benefits of Saffron extract (“It’s an antidepressant and it helps to keep a sharp mind,” she says) and the various uses for Australian Acacia seed ( “use it on squab, duck and vegetables,” she suggests. “And in hot chocolate!”).
Luminaries like the noted chef David Chang ( Momofuku ) come in frequently to see what’s new, and there is always something. Boulaabi, a native of Tunisia, considers herself “a curator of rare product, always looking for the best quality.” Her products have quite a range: Honey from the Mariola, the smallest bee in the world, living in a rainforest half a world away. A Chaga mushroom from upstate New York. Cinnamon Tree Berries and Vanilla Beans from Madagascar, Sancho Peppercorns from Japan, Almond Syrup from Beirut, 50 different vinegars made in-house and over 375 spices that originate in Syria, Turkey, North Africa, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Indonesia, among others.
“You never know what you will find next,” Boulaabi notes. “The minute you think that you’ve seen it all, nature says ‘No, you did not!’ and you find something new.”
A recent discovery is freeze dried Sea Urchin powder, which instantly inspired her 13 year-old son, whose first question when he comes home from school is always “mom, what’s for dinner?”
“Let’s put it on steamed potato with olive oil !” he suggested.
Jewelry designer Cyril DesPointes describes SOS as “a little paradise, a small gem in the city.” His favorite is the freeze dried capers, that “are not like any others, they are not in salt or vinegar.” But he is open to suggestion when he visits, as “every time you go, there is something new to discover.”
Chef Bill Brasile, whose quartet of city restaurants includes the newly opened La Grande Boucherie in midtown, has known Boulaabi since she was ” selling truffles to restaurants” before the shop existed. “I use their spices for all my dishes,” he says. ” They have the best selection, the highest quality and the freshest spices.”
“They are just wonderful people,” Brasile adds. “They are on their own voyage of discovery and it’s fun to tag along.”
You won’t find a sign outside, just the letters S.O.S inserted into the sidewalk outside the door. “I want people to discover me, like a secret,” Boulaabi explains. “Once you come in, it all makes sense.” But don’t expect that because you have entered this fragrant paradise, you will be leaving with whatever you are willing to pay for. ” People don’t understand when something is not for sale,” says Boulaabi, “There are some things that I just have to share only with the right client. I need to know that the right person is getting this little blessing in a jar.”
Luckily, this tiny shop is packed full of those little blessings. “When you have something beautiful, you want to share it,” concludes Boulaabi. “I am happy when something special goes to a better home than mine.”
You can find SOS Chefs on the web at sos-chefs.com and on Instagram @soschefs