Silver Lake brunch spot Sqirl came under fire July 12 when former employees accused the restaurant of storing mold-covered jam in a hidden, illegal kitchen space, scraping off the mold, then serving it to customers.
Jewish owner Jessica Koslow and her restaurant are renowned for farm-fresh brioche ricotta toast and blood orange, mulberry and plum preserves. In 2016, The New York Times called the Virgil Avenue storefront “one of Los Angeles’s best-loved restaurants,” and stated Koslow built “an empire out of jam.” The Journal named her one of Los Angeles’ top Jewish chefs under 40, and her Sqirl-themed cookbook won Eater’s 2016 Cookbook of the Year. The spot regularly has customers lining up down the street.
Allegations arose after former Sqirl chef Ria Dolly Barbosa commented on a Sqirl Instagram post that Koslow “took credit for the first two years I was her chef there. I have been written out of the Sqirl history.”
“You are an incredible part of Sqirl’s history and you brought unique talent and thoughtful cooking here,” the Sqirl account replied. “You are part of the history and fabric of this place.”
Then, another of the restaurant’s former chefs, Javier Ramos, responded to Barbosa that he had a similar experience at Sqirl. “She also took credit for my 2 1/2 years as the chef at Sqirl,” Ramos replied, writing that he “didn’t get recognition or payment for the recipes that I contributed to the cookbook” and that Koslow “took a James Beard nomination in my name.”
The two chefs began discussing their shared experiences, and Ramos posted a photograph of a bucket of jam covered in mold on his Instagram stories.
Addressing all the chefs who support Koslow and Sqirl “by inviting her to ‘cook’ at your book launches, new restaurant opening, selling her jam book because you’re hoping to move units despite all of this,” he wrote over the image, “guess we should put our heads down and just scrape this all off too.”
Barbosa then shared the post, making the restaurant trend on Twitter.
Authors Roxane Gay and Bess Kalb and journalist Yashar Ali weighed in with their concerns.
The Sqirl thing. Smh. It’s funny and sad and appalling. Imagine how the staff must be treated if they sell moldy jam! Inglewood is where it’s at. No moldy jam. Come west.
— roxane gay (@rgay) July 12, 2020
Never went to SQIRL and never tried their jam not because I knew how they were running their kitchens but because I hated the name.
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) July 13, 2020
I read about Sqirl and what’s crazy to me is how botulism makes you wait in a two-hour line to spend $35 on eggs and coffee.
— Bess Kalb (@bessbell) July 13, 2020
Former employees claim that Sqirl’s house jam was prepared in an illegal kitchen unknown to health inspectors, where it would form a layer of mold.
“The majority of my time there was spent working in the illegal kitchen space, and the moldy jam was a daily concern,” Elise Fields, who was the pastry cook at Sqirl from January 2018 to June 2019, told the Journal. “We used jam in pastry a lot and it was a common struggle to find jam in the walk-in that wasn’t old [or] didn’t have mold on it.”
Fields added, “The morning line cooks often had to take the time to scrape the mold off before taking it to the line to use. [Koslow] definitely knew about it and directly told employees to scrape it off and use it. Employees definitely questioned and protested it, but to no avail. They were always given excuses or talked down to.”
“The moldy jam also got served to customers,” Sasha Piligian, Sqirl’s pastry chef from 2016 to the summer of 2019, told the Journal. “I mean, the mold layer was scraped off, but still served.”
She added that the illegal kitchen had a mold-covered fan that spread the fungus. “I worked in that illegal kitchen for most of my time there,” Piligian said. “We were locked in the kitchen while the health department was there.”
“I once had to hide in the illegal kitchen with the lights off while the health inspector was there for over an hour,” Fields added. “The kitchen space had no ventilation and was generally an unsafe space for anyone to be working in.”
Piligian claimed that Koslow believed that if the kitchen was discovered by authorities, they would shut Sqirl down. “So many things were being done illegally. The hot sauce, fermentation, all done in the illegal space,” she said. “She would have to finally fix the space everyone worked out of.”
Piligian said that someone did, in fact, call the Health Department on Sqirl in early 2019. Koslow moved staff to a commissary space, but the illegal kitchen was still accessible.
In response to the circulating allegations, Koslow issued a statement via Sqirl’s Twitter and Instagram accounts confirming that “mold would sometimes develop on the surface” of their jams. They would still serve it to customers “under the guidance of preservation mentors and experts like Dr. Patrick Hickey, by discarding mold several inches below the mold, or by discarding containers altogether.
There have been a lot of questions about our jam this weekend. Here are our answers: pic.twitter.com/ELDngZCms1
— SQIRL (@SQIRLLA) July 12, 2020
“We don’t use commercial pectin, sweeteners, or other stabilizers, and to highlight the fruit, we add little sugar. That yields a more natural, fruit-forward product,” Koslow wrote. “Put simply, a low sugar jam is more susceptible to the growth of mold. The same types of mold that develop on some cheese, charcuterie, dry aged beef, and lots of other preserved foods.”
“That’s just a lie,” Piligian said of Sqirl’s statement. “If you understand the process of properly making jam, it’s just not how it works. She’s trying to make it seem like to her wide audience, who might not know, that this is totally normal. I’ve never worked anywhere or learned how to make jam in a way that would produce mold.”
Sqirl also denied that there was an illegal kitchen operation. “All jam production — for jarred retail and the restaurant — is 100% done off-site at our catering kitchen, a California Department of Food and Ag Milk and Dairy Food Safety certified facility,” Koslow added. “In the past, jam was made on site at Sqirl — always legally and always labeled accordingly.”
After then going on to state in her post that “the buck always stops with me,” Koslow committed to storing the bulk jams in a better way in the future. “We are doing away with the current cold storage process altogether. Instead, moving forward, we will switch over to a combination of hot-packing bulk jam as well as sealing and storing the batch of leftovers for immediate use on the line in the Sqirl Kitchen,” Koslow wrote.
“Honestly, this isn’t about mold to me. It’s more about the working conditions, the way the employees were treated, the mismanagement,” Piligian said. “The best outcome would be that people focus on that, not the mold. Or I hope the mold at least opens up a bigger conversation.”