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A taste of cranberry sauce inspired the career of L.A. chef Jessica Koslow: she did not come from the tin

Chef Jessica Koslow from Sqirl. (Scott Barry / Sqirl)

In an occasional series on the early memories that were triggered by a particular dish, to remarkable people in the food world.

– People who are interested in food know Jessica Koslow for two things. The first is Sqirl, the unrestricted counter-service café in Silver Lake, where playing the line is a full-time job and your order is finely tuned – seemingly endless variations and substitutions that make long waits even longer – an abundance-time fetish.

The second is her sqirl line, which she launched in 2011 and sold here and online. The jams are made from local ingredients and are spectacular. The luscious, almost sauces-like jams change with the seasons and are best known for Sqirls ricotta toast. This alone is reason enough for Koslow to be the best cook of Eater in L.A. in 2014 and this year's finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West.

Most people do not know about Koslow, 37: She grew up here in Long Beach and was an ice skater from the age of 5. In 1999, she became national champion in School Figure, a technique for making eight patterns on the ice.

"Because I grew up skating, I did not grow up eating," she said recently as we met at her home near the restaurant. "But I loved skating. That made me healthy. It was my all in the same way that the food is now everything. I feel like I exchanged my feet for my hands. "

Koslow as a child with her mother, Cheryl Effron. (Family photo)

Koslow wore jeans, a gray T-shirt, and her hair in a ponytail that looked like a teenager. She just wanted to make me a real dish in her development as a chef, a cranberry sauce that was an "aha" moment to her, but in detail she did not have enough sugar. Since it is late summer, she had no cranberries. She went to four shops before she found frozen. That brought her back. We had already stayed behind since she had canceled the day before to drive to Napa for Gravenstein apples. She called a neighbor and asked for a cup of sugar without luck. She called Sqirl, but nobody was free. Tick ​​tack. Finally, she asked her husband, Ryan Erlich, a deputy prosecutor, to bring her home.

Koslow kept her calm during the big sugar search, although she could see that I lost mine. Within minutes, she defused me by feeding me a bowl of her luxurious popcorn (more oil than corn) coated with Jacobsen's black pepper salt. I wondered if it was her heritage in her competitive sports training to test her limits by doing everything herself. Or if she's just too stubborn to hire a wizard.

Koslow as a child with her father David Koslow. (Family photo)

As we waited, Koslow conversed. Her parents divorced when she was two years old. "I liked swimming," Koslow said, "but my mother, who is a dermatologist, thought I could get a melanoma. I went skating at a friend's birthday party and I loved that too, so I started figure skating. Since I always trained, I was never allowed to eat anything bad. Tuna salad was with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. My mother loved fruit, it was her sweet treat, but I always disliked it. I remember she did not let me off the hook until I ate half a banana, and I just sat there crying. "

Not that she did not have a sweet tooth. "My father would come over the weekend and we would make Rice Krispie treats," Koslow recalls. "He told me how great sugar was. And I would secretly hide sweets in the drawers in my bedroom. Bags with sour patch kids and candied almonds. "

She stopped skating when she went to college and earned a degree in economics from Brandeis University. "After skating, I thought," What else interest me? "She earned a master in media theory from Georgetown, who was still uncertain. During this time, in 2004, she went to Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, Jensen Remes, in Carver, Massachusetts, where his parents lived and worked on a Moosbeer Moor. At the time, she had "no taste buds," but was interested in the food, and Remes had introduced her to a world of possibilities. "Jensen's mother was an avid cook," Koslow said. "She has done everything from scratch. This was the first time I saw that fruit came straight from the country. I was used to gelling cranberry out of a can, not fresh cranberries, which before my eyes were essentially turned into jam.

"That got me exploring what fruits could be," she continued, "in a form that I could actually eat. I had to take small bites like a mouse, from a place of aversion to a deep appreciation. "

After graduating from Georgetown the following year, she moved to Atlanta, where she became a pastry chef in the rural restaurant Bacchanalia, "the moment that really changed my career and life." She learned about preserving and preserving, pickling, Fermenting and dehydrating, staple foods of the southern cuisine that were alien to their California education, with their relentless sunshine and abundant fresh produce. Why save something when there is more and more tomorrow? And that Thanksgiving left a lasting impression that was different from the one she had celebrated as a child of divorce in restaurants. As she witnessed the dedicated cycle of growing, cooking and preserving food, she realized, "gave me a sense of what a family could be."

Three Sqirl marmalades on toast. (Andy Noel / Sqirl)

But she still was not sure if she had found her life's work. "I earned $ 10 an hour, and my mom called and said," I support you and I love you, but after all this training you cook? "Now parents think this can be a career, then it was more like" Will everything be alright? "So I got scared." Koslow moved to New York and took a job at Fox as a digital content producer for American Idol "," 24 "and" So You Think You "Can Dance. She worked there until 2010 and moved to Los Angeles in 2008. She missed the kitchen and started baking bread at Village Bakery three nights a week. Then she went to the office without sleep. "There was no way to keep it up," she said. "After the financial crisis, I had watched three rounds of shooting and they let me go in March 2010. I knew it was my chance to give what I wanted."

She started with a master class. "It was about connecting to the farmers here," she said. "What are your seconds, the less perfect-looking fruits they could not sell. Can I take it away from you? "Her friend Scott Barry, a graphic designer who became her partner in Sqirl, designed the jam jar. "The idea behind Sqirl was" a girl who strays away, "she said," with Scott I developed the brand, and then I developed recipes based on everything I've learned in the South. "

Bourbon cranberry sauce; Get the recipe below. (Goran Kosanovic for the Washington Post, food styling by Amanda Soto / The Washington Post)

The sugar came, and Koslow glanced at her watch. She had a sushi date in Pasadena, and if she wanted to keep it, she knew she could not fry those cranberries for an hour. She improvised an alternative in her Le Creuset Dutch oven, which lasted 12 minutes. On high heat, she stirred the cranberries with sugar, removed them from the flame to add the bourbon, and stirred again at high heat to reduce it. After it cooled, we tried. "It tastes like sweets that I can eat all day," she said contentedly. Although many of the berries were preserved, the overall consistency was jam-laden. It was intensely spiced, sweet and yet sweet. It could even be a turkey in the foreground.

I was reluctantly impressed. Not so good, how good the cranberry brew was, but that Koslow managed to break it all – the high-speed act of cancellation, delays and near-misses. She switched and stopped. When her friends' car was idling outside, she dressed for dinner and dropped herself to take swimming lessons. What? After all the years devoted to skating so they can stay away from the sun and protect their skin?

Her eyes were calm. "I like swimming," she said.

Witchel is a former contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of "All Gone: A Memoir of Dementia to My Mother."


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