If ever you’re looking for plum-coated sesame seeds, banana vinegar, saffron, or agave worm salt, SOS Chefs will come to the rescue. The shop, located at 104 Avenue B, near East Seventh Street, has been in the East Village for nearly 30 years, and while the storefront is low-key in design, it has, in that time, become the secret weapon of chefs in New York City.
Owner Atef Boulaabi, originally from Tunisia, came to New York in the 1990s and worked wholesale, selling ingredients to various hotels: “When you come from Tunisia you have to be involved in food in some way. Your life revolves around the kitchen — there wasn’t a lot of entertainment — and the kitchen still is the best form of entertainment,” she says.
She was intrigued by the electric dynamics in kitchens. By 1996 she launched SOS Chefs strictly for chefs and wholesalers. She said finding her passion for ingredients, was like “discovering what you are here for” on this planet.
It wasn’t until four years later that she opened her doors to the general public.
Boulaabi estimates there are some 1200 products in the small storefront, which she sources from around the world and then puts in her own packaging; on top of that, she makes tea mixtures, and ferments. She collaborates with chefs on co-branded specialty products (she mentions that she has a seasoning in the works with a top NYC pizzeria, which she’s excited to announce).
SOS Chefs is a much more intimate, smaller operation, than, say, other spice shops like Kaluystan’s or Sahadi’s. But Boulaabi is a mighty, magnetic force who’s made a name for herself as a trusted ingredient whisperer to chefs like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges (whom she worked with most recently for the Tin Building), and the teams at Il Buco, Atla, Estela, and Oxomoco. And while her role is a retail one, she is very much in hospitality; as soon as a customer walks in to ask about a product, she breaks out samples for them to try.
Today, Boulaabi runs the shop with her husband, Adam Berkowitz, a former chef. Along the wood and metal shelves Berkowitz built for SOS Chefs, there are a dizzying array of powders, oils, vinegar (there are more than 30 with flavors like yuzu or pumpkin-chai), spices, sauces, even pretzel salt — most with uniform labels, but each glowing color like chemicals in a scientist’s lab. It can be hard to know where to begin, but Boulaabi acts as a guide.
In some ways, SOS Chefs looks like a home, and it sort of is: Boulaabi and Berkowitz and their two sons live upstairs and the store is a second living room. There’s a worn-in table dressed with flowers, dried goods hang from the ceiling, and space in the back where the duo breaks down and experiments with new ingredients. Their cat, Mabrouk, keeps watch.
One of Boulaabi’s strengths is predicting what’s the next interesting restaurant ingredient. When I ask what she’s forecasting, Boulaabi says, salep, an orchid that is used in puddings in Turkey, and is considered to be an aphrodisiac, that she’s been getting more requests for.
SOS Chefs’s business model used to be 90 percent restaurant-driven, but the pandemic changed that. In one fell swoop, overnight, COVID forced Boulaabi to lose customers, and, had hit with what felt like a dead end, of where to sell her products when restaurants were closed — all while she waiting on invoices to be paid. “If we didn’t own the building, I don’t know what would have happened to us in COVID,” she says. What she found, though, was that with more people homebound, they began to get more and more everyday cooks as customers, excited about the shop’s potential for experimentation.
“The pandemic was also very positive, because we’ve learned so many other ways to do things, and it made us stronger, relying on our community,” she says. For one, the pandemic forced Boulaabi to post more on social media to communicate all the things she has going on.
Boulaabi and Berkowitz also have a space in Bushwick, that they considered turning into an SOS Chefs Brooklyn, to meet the demand of the growing top-tier restaurant scene in the borough. But during the pandemic, the duo built out a kitchen and turned the “atelier” into an events space rental for private dinners, photo shoots, and wedding rehearsals, providing an alternate revenue stream.
COVID or not, geopolitical issues — climate change, war — continue to affect Boulaabi’s ability to source ingredients like Tasmanian pepper berries from New Zealand. But it’s about staying nimble, and creative, finding new routes for locating items. “We have a commitment to chefs and their menus,” she says. “Nature is becoming more ferocious, even earthquakes, tsunamis, it’s making it really difficult.”
Boulaabi adds that “It doesn’t mean these changes are bad, it just means it’s different,” and she has to re-educate herself on evolving tastes.
Either way, one of the positives of the pandemic is that Boulaabi and Berkowitz are figuring out how to have more of a work-life balance — where once they opened the shop at 6 a.m. now they open at 9 a.m. on most days. They’re excited to do more traveling and spend even more time with their kids.
“My whole day is an R&D, I receive artists, chefs, smart-y people like lawyers, crazy people — everyone brings me light; I am so blessed,” she says. “We get people who are extremely obsessed with food, they believe in stories” and, it's clear, customers continue to travel all the way to NYC to hear her, in particular, tell them.