The Special Blends of La Boîte Find a Niche in Hell’s Kitchen

La Boîte’s “First Step Set” is an excellent introduction to the store’s unique spices. Photo courtesy La Boîte.

BY RANIA RICHARDSON | On an industrial stretch of 11th Ave., amidst auto dealerships and body shops, an open door to a small business lets out the captivating smells of a Middle Eastern spice market. Founded in 2009, La Boîte specializes in artisanal spice blends created by founder and owner Lior Lev Sercarz.

La Boîte founder and owner Lior Lev Sercarz. Photo by Rania Richardson.

A classically trained chef, Sercarz sources high-quality product from around the globe to formulate new flavor combinations. There are nearly 200 custom mixtures in his repertoire, and some have names like Penang (sweet chili, onion, turmeric), Chios (basil, tarragon, oregano, fennel), Tangier (rose petals, cumin, cardamom), and Bombay (turmeric, fenugreek, clove) that speak to the international nature of the business and the locales he finds inspiring.

“I found my niche in the food industry when I observed a general lack of knowledge about spices across the board,” Sercarz recalled. Interest was on the rise with the ever-growing foodie culture and an expansion in worldwide travel. The popular cookbooks by Sercarz’s friend and fellow Israeli, Yotam Ottolenghi, also spurred the public’s interest in the culinary possibilities of native ingredients like sumac and za’atar.

After training in France and spending 20 years as a chef in professional kitchens, including Daniel Boulud’s, Sercarz spent two years in incubator mode, experimenting in his apartment with a spice grinder and the contents of his pantry. His mission was to create blends from a crossover of cultures based on his culinary skills and creativity. He eschewed traditional mixtures such as what some would consider “authentic” Madras curry. His own recipes set him apart — typically a base of three labeled ingredients combined with a number of undisclosed others. The turning point came when an early collaborator, Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, began an exclusive association with him for spices.

As the business developed and interest increased, Sercarz searched for an affordable space for volume production. With affordability in mind, he considered the Lower East Side and East Village, but found that Hell’s Kitchen had the right vibe. “It’s a great dynamic in Hell’s Kitchen, being on the sidelines. It’s an interesting and friendly area with lots of manufacturing,” he said. Proximity to Ninth Ave., with its plethora of ethnic eateries, was not a factor, but is a befitting aspect of the neighborhood.

La Boîte’s Neury Hernandez, right, consults with a customer. Photo by Rania Richardson.

Sercarz scaled up over the years and now manages 10 employees who help produce, package, and ship the product. Walk-in customers are welcome, but the shop is only open on weekdays. Sample tasting is encouraged. After several years during which his products were available through third party sellers, La Boîte launched its own website for online sales. Professionals (chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and manufacturers) make up 70 percent of the business and home cooks make up the other 30 percent. Recent manufacturing partnerships have included gin, beer, popcorn, and chocolate makers who benefit from the addition of complex seasonings.

Sourcing and purchasing is generally done over the phone or online with a network of importers and brokers who interface with small-scale farms, where manual labor presides. The shipments come in from all over the world. India, his largest supplier, provides the store’s cumin, coriander, fennel and caraway. With the exception of some onions and garlic, none of his ingredients are produced in the US. “It is labor-intensive and not profitable here. It’s not part of our culture,” Sercarz said. Almost everything comes in whole except ginger, turmeric and cinnamon, which are delivered pre-ground due to the unwieldy hammer mills and other equipment needed for pulverization.

On occasion, Sercarz travels to meet his suppliers. He recently visited Basque country to witness the harvest of Espelette peppers, the primary element in Le Poivre, a blend from the unique Voyager line for Ripert. In his travels, he keeps his eyes out for anything new, such as cinnamon buds, which he describes as “super-tasty.” Next up, he wants to expand production, as the number of products is plentiful.

The large array of spices are contained in pretty jars, and the prices are on the high side. Blends start at $15 for about 2 oz. Single spices such as paprika, cumin, and ginger start at $9 (returned jars earn a discount for future sales). Other products include sweet and savory biscuits that showcase the custom mixtures, and a number of books by Sercarz, including 2016’s encyclopedic “The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices.” La Boîte itself is a reference for spices, as framed photos with vials that contain the seeds, roots, bark, berries, or leaves for each one line the walls of the space, creating a visual learning adventure to match the olfactory one in the shop.

La Boîte is located at 724 11th Ave. (btw. W. 51st & 52nd Sts.). Hours: Mon., 10 a.m. –6 p.m. and Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Call 212-247-4407 or visit laboiteny.com.

Lior Lev Sercarz’s “The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices” has recipes for blends and a wealth of botanical information. The “Voyager” gift set, seen here, offers several spices along with the book. Photo courtesy La Boîte.
Geraldine Taylor, one of the 10 La Boîte employees, packs a shipment. Photo by Rania Richardson.