Walking back to her seat at the Proper Hotel Santa Monica’s rooftop lounge, Jessica Koslow stops and dips her finger into a container of white paste. The staff member holding the tub watches her, waiting for her feedback, as she tastes it. Oh, that’s interesting. The consistency. Could we do coconut milk? What if it was completely dairy-free, wouldn’t that be cool? Let’s keep experimenting.
It’s a few short weeks before Koslow’s new restaurant, Onda, opens at the hotel, so her days are chaotic but exciting. “We’re in a really beautiful time where we’re tasting at least once, but mostly twice a week now, both for beverage and for savoury,” she says. Koslow is something of a Los Angeles celebrity, at least in the foodie scene; her first restaurant, a breakfast and lunch spot called Sqirl, has become an east side destination for lovers of local, fresh ingredients presented in inventive ways. (One example? A show-stopping Sorrel Pesto Rice bowl: brown rice mixed with nut-free sorrel pesto, lacto-fermented hot sauce, sheep’s feta cheese, watermelon radish, preserved Meyer lemon, and a poached egg. Do yourself a favour and add the house bacon as well. And get a coffee. And maybe a cookie.)
The small cafe is in the midst of an expansion, adding to the craziness of Koslow’s life at the moment. But she’s peppy and positive as can be, her mind working a mile a minute, healthily consumed by her work—which all began many years ago with a line of preserves.
“I started off with jam because I started as a pastry cook and felt it was manageable. And as my world opened, I allowed it to unfold,” she reflects. “So preservation turned into a cafe for breakfast and lunch, which makes sense because jam is on toast, jam is on porridge; it made sense to transition into breakfast and lunch in the same space that I was doing jam. Jam also is a hard business, especially when you’re using farmer’s market product, and I think part of making jam is also about me hiding a way a little bit, scared of opening a door to reviews, to perspective, to people judging you. I had to be ready personally to take it on, and to be like, ‘You know what? My perspective is valuable. I don’t care what people say.’ And I think starting with jam was a great way to lighten the load a little bit. No one knew who I was, and neither did I. So it allowed for something really youthful.”
Sqirl opened in 2011 and has been going strong ever since, with lineups out the door almost daily. So now, Koslow is ready for a new challenge: all-day service at the upscale, seafood-forward Onda, which she’s running with chef Gabriela Camara of Mexico City’s esteemed Contramar.
“It’s been fun to expand a viewpoint from the east side to the west side; I think LA has pockets just like any city, and each pocket is different,” Koslow reflects. “And to just think about LA dining culture on a larger scale has been transformative for my work. And then to have Gabriela as a partner for Onda has allowed me to take the food that I do really well—whether it’s based in the farmer’s market, based in texture, or fermentation—and apply it to her work, which tends to be Mexican and very restrained. It’s taught me a lot of siphoning which has been cool, and also brought my perspective and history and values of who I am into the food.”
Koslow certainly puts a lot of herself into her cooking, which makes it a rather all-encompassing job. When your life’s work is something as necessary and everyday as food, how do you separate yourself from it? Can you still even find pleasure in it?
“That’s a great question because someone like David Chang, he doesn’t do this anymore, but there was a time when he only had Soylent in his fridge—and I think it’s because when food becomes something that you’re having to taste and basically break down and break apart, it’s hard to enjoy,” she says. “When you turn your passion into a profession, how do you still find the passion? When I go home to cook, oh my god, I just want the most basic things; I want something that’s sustenance, I don’t want to have to think about it. So I think that’s how my relationship [with food] has changed, is that I don’t really like to go out to eat as much as I used to. Because I want to make sure that if I’m going out to eat, I’m really wanting to turn the brain on. It’s another facet of work. So most of the time I like to just cook at home really simple, clean, and basic.”
Still, simple and basic to Koslow is not exactly simple and basic to the average person. When asked what an easy meal at home would be for her, she lists the previous night’s market bounty: jicama, fresh tomatoes, arugula, corn, smoked trout, roasted squash. “It’s simple!” she says. Simple might be relative in this case, but delicious-sounding? As with all of Koslow’s cooking, no one can argue that.