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Rare condiments and unique spices: NYC has a shop that chefs adore


Nadezhda Verbitskaya

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If you're looking for plum-glazed sesame seeds, banana vinegar, saffron, or agave worm salt, head to the store. SOS Chefs. The outlet at 104 Avenue B has been operating in the East Village for nearly 30 years. Although its showcase has a modest design, during this time the store has become the secret weapon of many New York chefs. Ny eater.

Owner Atef Bulaabi, a Tunisian native, moved to New York in the 1990s and ran a wholesale business selling condiments to various hotels.

“When you come from Tunisia, you have to be connected to food in one way or another. Your life revolves around the kitchen - there wasn't much entertainment there. And the kitchen is still the best form of entertainment,” she says.

She eventually opened SOS Chefs in 1996, a shop strictly for chefs and wholesalers.

Four years later, the store was opened to the general public.

Bulaabi estimates that the small store has around 1200 products, which she source from around the world and then package in her own packaging. In addition, she prepares tea blends and enzymes. The woman collaborates with chefs, creating with them unique seasonings under a joint brand. She said she had a condiment in the works for one of New York's best pizzerias.

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SOS Chefs is a small company, but Bulaabi has made a name for herself as a trusted seasoning expert for established chefs and restaurants. Each customer of the store can try the condiments, Bulaabi will select several options for him after he describes what he is looking for.

Today Bulaabi runs the store with her husband, Adam Berkowitz, a former chef. A dizzying array of powders, oils, vinegars, spices and sauces line the wooden and metal shelves that Berkowitz built for SOS Chefs. It can be hard to know where to start, but Bulaabi acts as a guide.

In a way, SOS Chefs is like a home, and it is. Bulaabi, Berkowitz and their two sons live upstairs, and the store is the second living room.

There is a shabby table lined with flowers, and dried food hangs from the ceiling. And in the back room there is a place where the couple experiment with new ingredients.

Bulaabi and Berkowitz also have premises in Bushwick

They considered turning it into SOS Chefs Brooklyn to meet the growing demand. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. And now the building in Bushwick is used as event space. They rent it out for private dinners, photo shoots and wedding rehearsals.

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