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Business of the Month: SOS Chefs, 104 Avenue B

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If your evening could use a little kick, you can grind yourself some black pepper. But if you want to add some spice to your life, you might consider sansho pepper, the zesty spice that will make your head tingle. You can catch a fly with honey; but if you want to sweeten the deal, you might opt for Mariola honey, which will at once disconcert you with the complexity of its flavor and cure much of what ails you. Whatever the occasion, the road to a more exalted gastronomic result goes through our April Business of the Month, SOS Chefs at 104 Avenue B (btw. 6th and 7th Streets), a treasure trove of spices meticulously sourced and packaged at the behest of some of the top chefs in the city and beyond, and a welcoming resource for ambitious home cooks and adventurous spirits curious for spicy knowledge and experiences.

SOS Chefs was founded by Atef Boulaabi in 1996. By then, Atef had a few years of experience importing food products for sale to restaurants and hotels, something she started doing shortly after moving to New York. But she also had a lifetime of experience with food and spices, from growing up in Tunisia, historically a hub of international commerce and a melting pot of gastronomic influences. Encouraged by some of her customers to start a spice business, Atef launched a wholesale operation in Midtown aimed at meeting the exacting demands of local chefs. Three years later, she moved the business to its current location, drawn by the artistic and “neighborhoody” feel of the East Village. Since the move, the business has grown along with restaurant demand for her product and services. Ten years ago, after long enduring the pleading knocks on the door from folks who, not owning a restaurant, could not buy from her, Atef relented and also started selling to retail customers.

Today, Atef and her husband, former chef Adam Berkowitz, preside over a cornucopia of seasonings, spices, and condiments. Their modestly sized storefront contains over a thousand different products. If you’re looking for a chili, you’ll find over thirty different kinds to choose from and might be tempted to get salt instead, so as to limit your choice to just seventeen. You’ll also find at SOS Chefs a carefully curated selection of roots and barks, peppercorns, dried herbs, dry mushrooms, extracts, bitters, oils, powders, nuts, house made infused vinegars, signature spice blends, and much else, including some we struggled to identify or categorize. What is one to do before this profusion of choice? One option is to just stand there dumbstruck. The better option is to turn to Atef for help. And chances are that, by the time you start to look for her, she’ll already be standing next to you, prepared to guide you in your culinary journey as you desire.

After thirty years of working with some of the best chefs in the world and contributing to their recipes, Atef has become a spicing authority herself, drawing from an ever growing spice repertoire to at times become a collaborator in the development of renowned dishes. A chef might come in saying that he has a lamb, wants to make kebabs, and would like cumin and caraway as the primary ingredients; and Atef takes it from there, proposing blends and complementary flavors. The non-chefs among us, however, can come to SOS Chefs with less definite plans — “I have a fish” might do — and trust Atef to do the rest.

Given SOS Chefs’ reputation for the quality of its product and for the care taken in its handling, it should come as no surprise that the business counts among its customers many of the chefs you could name and many whom you couldn’t, both here and abroad. Word travels far and fast through the international web of both striving and accomplished restaurant kitchens. These days, however, clients of the store also include plenty of non-professional cooks. The growing interests in elaborate food preparation driven by, among other factors, the popularity of the Food Network, has instilled in many the desire to cook like Alain Ducasse or to prepare at home some of the far flung cuisines featured by Anthony Bourdain. Atef has welcomed these ambitions, committed as she herself is to the vision of spices as a bridge between cultures:

Spices have that magic. You don’t have to be Indian to use turmeric. You don’t have to be french to use piment d’espelette. I think spices break that boundary. You can have a cultural idea about a place by just using their spice. It reveals so much.

The widespread interest in food and ambitious home cooking went a long way towards helping SOS Chefs stay afloat during the pandemic (as did the fact that Atef and Adam own their building, where they also happen to reside). Before the pandemic, about ninety percent of the store’s business came from restaurants. When those shut down, the large shortfall was mitigated in part by the many people stuck at home who decided to try to recreate in their kitchen what they might have previously eaten at a restaurant. As a result, Atef’s online sales surged. The increase in sales to amateur cooks has since played a role in helping business slowly return to pre-pandemic levels. Taking stock of her business’ endurance, Atef is quick to credit the community around her for good fortune:

Here in the East Village we’re a good community. That’s what kept me going after the pandemic. It’s the people that love coming to SOS Chefs and love the idea of what we’re doing. And I think that’s how you have longevity in your business is to have a community, to have the best product, and to be as clear and authentic as possible.

For bringing the flavors of the world to our neighborhood, and for helping us ennoble our kitchen pantries and realize our culinary visions, we are thrilled to name SOS Chefs the Village Preservation April 2023 Business of the Month.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

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