Meet Jess Koslow: Pastry chef turned jam-maker turned owner of LA's most popular breakfast spot
Chef Jess Koslow is the owner of SQIRL - a small Silverlake breakfast spot dubbed 'LA's coolest cafe' by Bon Appetit magazine. Offering a seasonal menu of healthy, flavor-packed dishes - 'California comfort food', as Jess terms it - SQIRL attracts LA's most stylish diners in their carb-craving masses. Read on to read about Jess' topsy-turvy path to success and find out what advice she has for aspiring chefs and restauranteurs.
You're the owner of fabulous LA cafe, Sqirl. Tell us how the idea for it came about.
I found this space in 2011, when I was look for a place to make jam. It was reasonable, rent wise, but still not sustainable as a place just to make jam in! So I decided to open a cafe with my friends who own G&B Coffee, and together we were able to channel whatever money we weren’t spending on rent back into the food.
Together, we created a dynamic menu with dishes that would change all the time, sourced from the markets, and made without taking shortcuts. All our energy went straight into our food. I think that’s starting to become more and more of a thing - before, eating out in LA was about Hollywood, and the industry and a vibe, and the food was secondary. Now, I think with the food culture coming to be what it is, people are willing to take a risk and come to Virgil Village if the food is special.
SQIRL certainly feels special. What kind of experience were you trying to create here?
I feel like this is an extension of my house. It's where I want to be, serving the food that I would honestly eat everyday. It’s healthy but a little naughty: You’ve got kale salad, but there’s some crispy rice in there. I do have a sweet tooth, so obviously the toast and jam is very oriented towards that. Everything is really well sourced and considered, but at the same time done with a flair that has a little depth to it. I call it California comfort food.
Let's rewind for a second. Tell us a bit about your professional background.
I’m from LA originally. I’ve lived all over. I went to school in Boston and DC, and lived in New York. California is amazing, but if you don’t leave it you don’t know how amazing it is. I ended up in Atlanta after Grad school. My mom is a doctor and my dad was a lawyer, so there were a lot of expectations for me to [to follow a similar path]. I always wanted to cook, but I studied media theory and then I did a media-based MBA.
After that, I moved to Atlanta to be with my boyfriend at the time, and decided I’d give myself some time to figure out my next step. While we were living there I ate at this restaurant called Bacchanalia, which is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the US. The owner Annie Quatrano and her husband are James Beard recipients--Annie has really done numbers for the Southern food scene. After the meal, I wrote her one of those emails like, “I will wipe your floors! I will wash dishes! I will do whatever to work for you!” She hired me the next day to be the pastry chef.
Why do you think she was willing to give you a chance?
Just on the basis of me saying: I know I can do it, I’m willing to give 100%. Sometimes you need that at a restaurant. A lot of people come into SQIRL off the street with no experience, but they’re hungry and they’re willing to work. That’s the hardest thing in this industry - to find people who are willing to dedicate a lot of time for perhaps not a lot of money, simply because it’s what makes them tick.
What happened after that?
I worked for Annie for about a year and then I had an early ‘20s crisis, like: “I don’t know what I'm gonna do with my life, I did all this school and now I”m making ten dollars an hour. How am I gonna make this work? Is this really the right path for me? Maybe I’m not meant to do this.” Etc. etc!
So I moved to New York and I became a producer. I used my degree and ended up working for Fox, doing all the interactive media on shows like American Idol. I made a good amount of money, but my sanity was totally gone. I was working a desk job from 9-5, in a cubicle, just hating it. But I worked there from 2007 to 2010, got my job transferred out to LA, and then I really was like “I can’t do this anymore.” At that point I got a side job making bread at night, while still working for Fox in the day. In mid-2010, I left, went to Australia and worked at a bakery out there for a while, and then went back to Atlanta and helped Annie and her husband open up another restaurant. Then I moved back to LA and started SQIRL in early 2011.
SQIRL has been hugely popular with critics and customers alike. To what do you attribute that success?
At SQIRL, all of us are fine dining chefs. We’ve all worked dinner service, and we’re bringing that perspective to breakfast and lunch where it really hasn’t been before. You can go out and get an omelet or hash browns, but what we’re doing feels new but familiar at the same time.
At SQIRL you serve all your delicious housemade preserves. How did you start making jams?
I chose jams because, working in the south, it was just part of your everyday life. Down there, preservation is about necessity whereas here in LA we have so much amazing produce that we just take it for granted. Also, jam-making was something I could handle: something I knew and had been doing the entire time I was there. So I started doing jams and then that evolved into doing jams and pickles for restaurants, and slowly I realized I could do a breakfast and lunch cafe. Now we’re planning to do a dinner spot, and marketplace.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the restaurant industry?
Remember that restaurants are always looking for another set of hands. They’re always looking for someone who is willing to give their time. If you want to learn how to cook, reach out to places that you respect - maybe try bigger places that might have room for you. When I was baking bread in LA, I got the job because I just reached out to them and asked. I didn’t know how to make bread at all at that time, but I knew I wanted to learn. Then I turned into the night baker and I was there for about a year. I worked 12am-8am, headphones in, baking all the bread. It was a lot!
I don’t know what the right path is for everyone…I feel like, for a lot of my chefs, their path is to be a chef. They’re gonna be on the line. Other people like myself are just trying a lot of different things - figuring it out by cooking, or being a producer. All those things essentially help you to define who you are. I’m glad I had that experience of working as a producer, because I was able to save up money and actually to start this by myself, without investors. I learnt what it meant to produce something bigger than my own thing.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
Financially, it’s hard. You do it because you can’t think of anything else you’d rather do. But this is what I want - when I check in with myself, it feels good. I’m doing it alone but I always get the opinions of chefs and front of house staff. It’s so important to work as a team. Ultimately I’m the decision maker but I always funnel in good ideas. You can’t do everything your way all the time.
Any other advice?
A lot of the best things are hard, so be ready to work really hard. Understand that the beginning is going to be tough, but remember that believing in your own vision is the best path - most of the time people feel that energy of you being you, and they support it. It’s really important to check in with yourself, and make sure that whatever you’re doing reflects your perspective.
What's next for you?
I’m taking it one day at a time. I never thought that doing a jam company would lead me to having a cafe, which would lead me to having a dinner spot. Those things are really insane. But you know, the way I feel about food and wine is that it’s really easy to use words like ‘natural’, ‘free range’, and 'organic' without having any idea whether that’s true. For me it’s a lifestyle - it’s the way I choose to be and live. Everything at the restaurant is very impeccably sourced, and it’s something I just hope to expand. I really want to create food destinations in Los Angeles that are very considered. I want to keep tinkering and exploring and navigating our landscape, and helping the customers to keep expanding their palates. That’s really all I want.