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Can food be feminist? A few questions with Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow

October 26, 2018 3:00 pm

When I arrived to Los Angeles’s Sqirl at 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in October, there was a line snaking from the entryway, curving left, cutting close to the corner of the block, and when I finally left, nearer to 4, there was still a line, although no longer quite outside the door (that was fine—the restaurant was nearing end of service). I had never been to Sqirl (I know, right?), but Sqirl’s customers were what I imagined Sqirl customers to look like: a puzzle board of cropped pants, clingy T-shirts, white dudes with beards, glasses. Jessica Koslow, Sqirl’s owner, seems to have imprinted herself onto her clientele: she also wears the tapered pants, the T-shirt, the low-slung sneakers. The space hummed with conversation, with iPhone taps (that jam-smeared ricotta toast isn’t Instagramming itself), with the swishing legs of runners carrying plates of brioche or pesto-flecked puffed rice or salad to tables outside, most of which were filled (even the seats planted perilously in the hot afternoon sun).

Early in our meeting, I mentioned to Koslow that I had written the word “hive” in my notebook. That Sqirl felt hive-like to me. “That’s so funny, because right now, you know…I work mostly with men,” she said. She’s right, of course—traditional hives have a very female-dominant structure: a queen and her female worker bees (that’s 100 female worker bees for every one male drone). But my hive intuition was not freakishly off: the restaurant had just completed a partnership with the National Honey Board in September, which featured sticky-sweet seasonal dishes like honey fermented glazed donuts (they look as good as they sound: actress Gwyneth Paltrow even commented on a photo of the donuts posted to Sqirl’s Instagram page) and a morning honey bun. (“I could talk about honey all day, because the thing is that we ferment a lot of honey. Fermentation is a big part of what we do, whether it’s the preserved lemon or the lacto-fermented hot sauce. This is what we use in our food,” Koslow said of the partnership.)

Koslow is kind of a rock star: a chef who came to Los Angeles, started a jam shop, saw space in the cultural landscape for an all-day cafe, and made the all-day cafe, one that has refined and defined what all-day dining means in this city. Recently, she had to put a Jewish diasporic restaurant called Tel back in what we might call the dream realm—because two locations didn’t work out, because timing is everything—so Sqirl remains in the forefront, a passion and priority, an iconic space on the corner of Virgil and Marathon in sleepy East Hollywood. Koslow, by the way, came up under Anne Quatrano at Quatrano’s restaurant Bacchanalia in Atlanta. (The story, I’ve read, is that she came in one day to eat and was so moved by the food that she wrote Quatrano for a job—and was hired.) Koslow’s initial idea for a “daytime Cheers,” as she calls it, grew from frequent travel back and forth to Australia in 2010, where the breakfast-lunch cafe is endemic to the land. She also lived for a long time in Brooklyn, where neighborhood cafes are part of the culture.

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“A breakfast and lunch restaurant was a thing that came out of the jam,” Koslow told me. “That’s just what happened. Then I was like, if I’m going to be eating breakfast and lunch, why don’t I figure out what are the things that are nostalgic to me that I want to develop? Some of those aren’t dishes. They were flavors. That ricotta toast is something from the flavor of a blintz. The sorrel rice bowl was something out of a savory dish I really loved to eat.”

Interviewing is not a science. During our time together, Koslow frequently sprung from her seat: to offer customers water or to cut their sandwiches, to check on a group who appeared to be her friends having lunch (she apologized to them and I apologized to her for this, though I don’t know why I was apologizing), to take an important phone call and to come back from that phone call, somewhat refreshed, her brown eyes still flitting around the space she made so successful, that she continues to make so successful by being there. Present. Before the important phone call, I had started with a question about the cultural landscape of the restaurant industry—if it has seen change since #MeToo cracked the patriarchal shell of abuse encasing so many industries defined by money and influence.

Later, I asked if her food is feminist, but I think we both got a little muddled about what I meant. Did I say feminist or feminine? What exactly is feminist food? She didn’t use the word feminist in her answer and we joked about precisely sliced watermelon radishes, so maybe we weren’t talking about feminist/feminine food, but just food that is constructed to please the eye and the palate, to have multiple layers of texture (not just one), and to not be gendered, because why would we gender food anyway?

At the end of this interview, which trudged over two hours because of interruptions and cute dogs and older women not quite understanding how to use tea carafes, Koslow shared something with me that is very exciting but something I am not allowed to print. It does tell me, though, what sort of future she envisions for herself and other women in the industry: one in which they can work together to create something unique and untethered by the weight of being woman chefs, something feminist without needing to call itself feminist. A new hive, maybe, but with two queens at the helm.

Tim Grist Photography / Getty Images

Below, a few more questions with Jessica Koslow:

Nicole Adlman (NA): Do you think women are still being marginalized in the industry?
Jessica Koslow (JK): I have never felt that way. Honestly, I have never felt that. In this industry it really is about, ‘Are you good at what you do?’ If you’re good at what you do you should be offered the opportunity. I think maybe my scope might be ignorant because I was brought up by a female chef who didn’t care if you were a man or a woman. What mattered is if you were good at what you did. And if you were then you got the job no matter what. I think maybe this is my philosophy because of how I was raised, and I take that into consideration when I’m hiring. I’m an only child and my mom was a single mom. I was raised from a very young age by a strong mother figure who had a job that she loved to do and always wanted to do from a young age. Just nothing got in her way of doing what she loved. That is my baseline.

The hardest thing, and I think this is something that I deal with in terms of hiring in general, is the pool of people who apply. My job is to give the job to the person who deserves it, not based on gender, or persuasion, or whatever. But a lot of times I don’t have a woman applying for a job, or a woman with experience. So I have to decide to take a chance on a woman who might need to be brought up from not having experience—if there is that job available.

NA: What are some formative experiences you had in your early career as a chef?
JK: I think because I don’t have formal training and went directly into kitchens, I had the freedom of lack of structure. I learned structure from being in kitchens, but I didn’t learn the formal training you learn when you go to culinary school. And so that allowed for a freedom of expression, because the rules didn’t apply. It allowed Sqirl to be outside of the mold.

If you talked to many chefs before 2012, before all-day dining became a thing, no chef would get into this game of doing all-day dining because the economics weren’t right. You don’t have beer and wine, you don’t have full liquor. You’re really thinking about daytime culture. For me it was inherently about where was I going with the food. It really was about being honest with what I was doing, which was at first just making jam and then applying that jam to what seemed appropriate: breakfast and lunch. Thank God that I didn’t know the rules. Having no rules helped to develop something like this, where what you think of for breakfast and lunch—french toast, hashes—we have those on the menu, but then we also have the things you’re not going to get anywhere else, that are so unique to Sqirl and have also become unique in the breakfast game.

NA: Would you call Sqirl a feminist restaurant? 
JK: I don’t have any investors: it’s just me, so it ends with me, you know? And I feel like Sqirl is a major reflection of who I am. I think there’s like a visual identity for sure, and then there’s a palate. When I think of Sqirl I think of light and clean, and bright, and maybe mysteriously complex but also mysteriously simple. It’s just a different approach to the palate. But I do find that there are a lot of male chefs that also cook very delicately.

My staff calls me mom, which I find totally endearing, and try not to cry about. Because when I started Sqirl, everyone else was my age and we were all in this together. But as I’ve gotten older, they keep staying the same age. Like super Matthew McConaughey vibe. Everyone’s in the constant 26-to-28 age category and I’m getting a little older. The thing that’s interesting is I don’t have to be called mom, but somehow my role has become that. What I take from it is that maybe they don’t want to hang out with me on a Friday night, but they think of me as someone who nurtures them.

NA: It seems like a lot of New York chefs are moving out here and trying to do California cuisine, or even just replicate the feeling of California in the design of the space or in the food.
JK: You find that feeling happening in New York too. I think about Atla, which comes from a Mexican chef. But it feels really ultra-Californian. It feels like here, it feels West Coast.

NA: So what is it about California that’s drawing people here?
JK: What draws chefs to California, honestly, is the ingredients. Ingredients are so amazing here and it makes all the difference in the world. But California cuisine, as it was with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, is very much a pear is a pear kind of mentality. But I think that ethos became the ethos of California. It’s like, you don’t have to do much to this to make it delicious, which is true because the ingredients—the growing season is so long, you have strawberries all time of year. You don’t have strawberries all around the year in New York. So it’s a different ethos, and a lot of chefs are drawn here. I’m attracted to chefs from the South because in the South food is all about preservation at its core. You only have something for this amount of time and because land—it’s not California. It’s not as big. The growing space is so much smaller, so you have so much less to work with. You have to preserve it in order to keep it as long as possible. I love that the South has created that kind of technique and that drive for preservation. And think about applying it to some place like here, where you’ve got a massive growing season and a huge amount of land to grow.

NA: Who are some women that you admire in cooking right now?
JK: Tatiana Levha has a really cool bistro in Paris called Le Servan. She’s married to Bertrand Grébaut, who owns Septime. Le Servan is an all-day bistro, and it feels so fresh for Paris. I think a lot of times you can be stuck in tradition. But she’s part Filipino, so there are these nuances of Asian food that filter into this French bistro with perfect natural wine. It is such a great place to go. She’s really well-spoken and kind, but doesn’t take any shit and is beautiful and confident but also rigid in technique and what she expects from her cooks. She was nine and a half months pregnant and on the line in a chair a couple times ago when I was there. She’s someone that I really respect. I think she’s doing it the right way, leading a team, but also being a great example of what a leader should be. Then she also just does very perfect food that feels feminine, even though it’s bistro.

Jess Largey just opened Simone. She’s someone who’s been reared in the industry from 16. She knew what she wanted to be. This new restaurant just opened and it’s a true form of expression for her. I couldn’t be more excited or proud of her to have this own space. It’s really beautiful. I went to her friends and family event, and I was so proud of her for having her own state of expression with how she does her food. I had two pretty mind-blowing dishes there that I now have stuck in my head. But she’s someone that I really respect from a technical level, from a level of being hungry and not…What is the word I’m trying to say? It’s not forgiving. She’s very, this is Jess Largey, and she’s going down these rails. I appreciate that so much because it’s really easy to be like, hey, what are they doing over there? But she’s so “This is me.”

NA: Have you generally had good experiences with men in the industry?
JK: I’ve run the gamut.

NA: What insight can you give to women in the industry who dream of owning their own restaurants?
JK: I guess for me, my work is really intention-driven. I could work all day, 24 hours a day, and that’s just my nature. That’s not for everyone. I’m on the line tomorrow and Sunday. I’m still here. I’m touching tables. I’m front of house. Sqirl is my family.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.