LA chef and restaurateur Jessica Koslow takes a minute for a photo before her next challenge.
Chef Jessica Koslow takes ‘farm to
People used to make fun of Los Angeles-inspired “Californian” cuisine with cracks about sprouts, crumbly multi-grain bread and unidentifiable green-colored juice on the side. Today, the idea of farm to table dominates the restaurant world, while “clean eating” is a chic synonym for “healthy.” It only makes sense that chef and restaurant owner Jessica Koslow—who fully embraces the farm-to-table organic aesthetic like few can—also says, credibly, “I’m not afraid of butter.”
That’s reasonable, too. That old “sprout sandwich” stereotype of L.A. food was woefully misleading, seeing as how the hamburger—among many other, gloriously caloric, culinary achievements—was practically perfected here.
So, in that sense of blending fresh with indulgence, Koslow’s approach to food fits right in. It’s reflected in the woman herself. She is defiantly fresh in her approach to her food at her Silver Lake, breakfast-and-lunch standout Sqirl and in her general demeanor. This former U.S. national team figure skater and reality-TV singing contest producer took her competitive spirit and her Hollywood nerve to create a vibrant, incredibly popular take on the kind of food that she said “is as Californian as it gets.”
It is difficult to live in the Los Angeles area and not have a different concept of seasonal produce.
It is difficult to live in the Los Angeles area and not have a different concept of seasonal produce—especially when you can walk to your yard and pick a seemingly endless amount of avocados or lemons or figs and bring sacks of them to the office just to disperse the bounty.
It’s another matter altogether when you stand 36 miles from Sqirl, on the western edge of Los Angeles County, in the middle of Malibu, nestled in a gorgeous valley, and see how a restauranteur will bring a new meaning to “farm to table.” It’s here, on an old cactus farm about a mile inland from the surf, where Koslow and Alison Hershel are growing the next step in fresh cuisine.
At Sqirl, Koslow created an innovative brunch and lunch menu, with permanent and seasonal dishes ranging from a signature burnt brioche, housemade ricotta and preserves to a vibrant, acidic sorrel pesto rice bowl. Here, at what is also Hershel’s house, Hershel—with Koslow as a culinary consultant—is working to create a farm that will bring the restaurant’s farm to the restaurant’s table: a new restaurant. In June 2018, the farm will be operational, and its rutabagas, snap peas, carrots, za’atar and diverse greens will star in her new L.A. concept, Tel.
With a Middle Eastern influence, Tel will feature wood-fired options that will build off—but not diverge from—the kind of cooking that has made Koslow a sought-out cookbook writer and Sqirl a citywide dining destination. The space covers 8,000 square feet and will house the restaurant as well as equipment that will allow for the baking, canning, fermentation and dehydration of some ingredients grown at the farm.
We could see the future taking shape in Malibu as she walked us around the farm. “It’s here we’re developing the palate of the restaurant,” she said while pointing at a waxy, leafy tree called hoja santa (“sacred leaf” in Spanish).
“We have all kinds of little iconic ingredients planted around the farm.”
When toasted, the Oaxacan plant provides a rich yet subtle flavor to foods. “We have all kinds of little iconic ingredients planted around the farm,” Koslow said, referring to not just the Mexican green but also a delicate fig that is rare for this part of the world.
Spread over five acres of prime real estate, the farm is an ambitious project, one that has dominated at least 18 months of an already busy schedule for Koslow.
“There’s been a total transformation,” she said, looking at the heavy equipment dominating the grounds. At the same time, trees are beginning to sprout, and small sprigs of green are poking out of a few cultivated fields. “I see it taking shape and, you know, it’s scary.”
You can see the future taking shape in Malibu, as she walked us around the grounds.
For those who know the L.A. area, it’s obvious that Silver Lake and Malibu aren’t close at all. Nor, for that matter, is Malibu with the Tel location.
Moreover, Koslow, who is married, still has her Sqirl site going full tilt, judging by the lines it has pretty much from the second it opens in the morning. “It’s 24/7 but so, so exciting,” she said about her average day.
Koslow credits the discipline and competitiveness of her youth, when she was on the U.S. National Figure Skating team for four years, with helping her push ahead even when most would stop.
“Skating was a full-time job. It was every day and all the time, at that level. We had to dedicate our lives to skating,” she said. “I was so curious about food when I stopped skating. I found out I loved it. I think that’s where the passion really came from.”
The former competitor has carried that passion and stamina into three incredibly involved projects, to say nothing of her cookbooks: the farm, Tel and Sqirl. But those projects and her driven background have given her the ability to look at clean cuisine, farm to table, and indulgence in a new way.
“In order to be an L.A. chef, it’s important to embrace California cuisine,” she said, “but it’s even better if you can do that from a broader perspective.”