Jessica Koslow doesn’t fit any homespun notions of how someone who makes jam should be. When we met earlier this year, she was standing outside Sqirl, the hipster brunch spot she runs in Los Angeles, dressed in a black sweatshirt and jeans, gregariously chatting with regulars and fixing plans with staff for an upcoming restaurant at LA Frieze Art Fair.
We’d arranged to head out to Studio City to pick Seville oranges from a tree in the garden of a friend of hers. One of Koslow’s current missions is to make Americans love marmalade. “The commercial versions here in the States are usually terrible – sweet jelly encasing uncaring cuts of rind cooked quickly so they live in a semi-hard state,” she told me. Even if her version isn’t yet flying off the shelves, she persists because she enjoys making it. “People need to know how good it is,” she added.
If anyone can change American preconceptions about what they should eat each morning, Koslow can. At Sqirl, her crispy rice salad, sorrel pesto bowl and ricotta brioche toast are much-copied signatures that have become synonymous with the progressive LA food scene. According to Momofuku’s David Chang, “America eats better breakfasts because of Sqirl.”
Sqirl launched as a maker of preserves in 2011, and today makes 35,000 pots of jam a year for service or to sell. Koslow’s latest book, Sqirl Away, published this month, shares the secrets of her earliest culinary passion. Her style of jam has no added pectin, minimal sugar (most technically count as fruit spreads because they contain less than 65 per cent) and a texture that spreads smoothly on toast. Puréeing the flesh yields a silkier “schmear”, so most of these conserves use blended rather than cut fruit. “My job is to keep the nuance of the fruit alive,” writes Koslow, meaning its essence shouldn’t be lost to sweetness or acidity.
Koslow got into jam as a pastry cook at Anne Quatrano’s celebrated restaurant Bacchanalia in Atlanta in 2005. On her return to LA, she turned to jam to capture California’s bountiful year-round produce. Her jams showcase local varietals including olallieberry and youngberry, and combinations that “mark a moment in time”, such as Santa Rosa plum with flowering thyme, which emerge around July.
At Sqirl, jam is mostly found on toast and in pastries. At Onda, the restaurant Koslow has launched with chef Gabriela Cámara in Santa Monica, it turns up on corn pancakes. But there’s scope to use jam in dressings (try plum with balsamic and olive oil) and glazes (Koslow recommends apricot on pork), while the book provides recipes for quince membrillo (fantastic in a grilled cheese sandwich), apple jelly (to accompany ham or chicken) and bourbon cranberry sauce (to spoon onto turkey). Koslow groups them all as jams because the cooking process is largely the same, though strictly speaking jam uses the pulp and juice of a fruit and marmalades, say, use a whole citrus including the peel.
When we’d finished picking the oranges in Studio City, it started to rain. We took refuge in her friend’s garage. He fetched a pot of Seville orange marmalade he’d made himself and set it on the bonnet of his vintage silver Jaguar for us to try. “It tastes like mead,” said Koslow, tipping a small spoonful into her mouth. The marmalade was sweet, sour and fruity – an acquired taste for sure. But Americans who haven’t acquired it are definitely missing out.
Sqirl Away: Modern Jamming, Preserving, and Canning by Jessica Koslow is published on 21 July by Abrams, £25.
Subsequent to the publication of this article, the Minnesota-based food blogger Joe Rosenthal published on Instagram a series of allegations said to have come from former employees of Jessica Koslow at Sqirl about unsanitary practices at the LA restaurant.
The employees claimed that Jessica Koslow kept an unlicensed kitchen that she was concealing from Department of Public Health Inspectors. There were also claims that the jams she served to customers in the restaurant were not properly stored and a picture was posted, by an individual purporting to be a former employee, of a large tub of jam in the kitchen covered in a layer of mold. Staff were allegedly told to scrape off the mold before serving the jam to customers in the restaurant. There were also stories of rodent infestations in Sqirl’s kitchens.
In response to those claims, Jessica Koslow issued this statement:
“To my customers and my employees, I want to start by saying that I am sorry.
“Before I address my many mistakes and outline the changes we have made, I want to first make clear that the photo being circulated is not a container we ever served jam from. It is a photo of a discard (garbage) bucket that was taken several years ago by a former employee. The notion we would serve food from that is upsetting, but I understand how my wrong decisions and our old practices would lead some people to believe this. But it is not true. Nor is it true that Sqirl has ever had a rat problem – our kitchen, secondary kitchen and catering kitchen each have an “A” rating by the Health Department.
“Sqirl was built with a vision in my mind and the little money I had saved. We started with boxes as tables and crates for chairs. Like any business, as we started to grow, we needed more space, so in 2013, I acquired a secondary kitchen in the space that is now Sqirl Away (directly next door to Sqirl) and it was permitted to operate as a kitchen. I filed paperwork and proactively contacted the Health Department to request an inspection in 2013.
“The truth is that at the time I thought I could update the additional space with the little funds I had saved. But the job ended up being bigger than I could afford and my bank would not give me a loan. Around that time, our secondary kitchen fell off the radar of the Health Department, despite the fact that Sqirl’s main kitchen received regular inspections. Ashamedly, I took advantage of their oversight and did the best we could as we used Sqirl’s main kitchen for all our restaurant orders including jam, and used the secondary kitchen primarily for baking and food prep.
“We were at risk of being shut down, but in our industry, this is common and I was just focused on keeping the lights on and keeping my team employed.
“Until June of this year, our jam was always made in our kitchen at Sqirl after hours, when the restaurant was closed and then cooled and moved to the secondary kitchen for storage. To be clear: No jam was ever made in the secondary kitchen. Since 2018, the Health Department has known about our secondary kitchen and has worked constructively with us as we modernized our secondary kitchen which has now earned an “A” grade from the Health Department. Today, each of the three kitchens I own and operate—Sqirl, the secondary kitchen, and our catering kitchen—have an “A” grade.
“I take the safety and health of my staff and customers seriously. All of the retail jam we have ever sold—which is to say the jam in jars that is bought from us and at stores—is pasteurized and canned with the “hot pack” method that makes the growth of mold basically impossible. That same recipe is used in the restaurant, but because the jam is low in sugar and we don’t use chemicals or preservatives there were occasional instances where mold would develop on the surface.
“When this happened we would remove it. To guide this practice I relied on the research and guidance of health experts and to my knowledge thought it was safe.
“I eat the same jam I serve my customers, family and friends and would never knowingly serve any food that would put their health at risk. I realize that I was wrong and I am sorry.
“We have already thrown out any jam with mold on it and will continue to do so moving forward. Jam with mold will not be permitted in any of our kitchens or our restaurant. We are implementing the same “hot pack” method which is a commercial industry standard that involves pasteurizing all the jam used in the restaurant and storing it in smaller glass containers–just like we always have done with our retail products. We are also submitting samples of our jam to an independent lab, Certified Laboratories, Inc., for testing to ensure its safety and longevity.
“I know I have lost the trust of our loyal customers, partners, and jam subscribers and hope that my sincere regret and these changes demonstrate that I have learned from my mistake and are enough to earn a second chance from them.”