After LA’s Sqirl cafe sold moldy jam, its owner cited a mycologist to defend it. But he doesn’t approve.
On Sunday, the chef and owner of the trendy Sqirl cafe in Los Angeles released a statement responding to a controversy that had been fermenting all weekend in the petri dish of social media. In the missive, Jessica Koslow — whose Instagrammable brunch food regularly draws out-the-door lines of patrons and who built a retail empire out of jars of preserved fruit — addressed the topic at hand: moldy jam.
Yes, she said, her lauded jams contained less sugar than supermarket preserves, making them “more susceptible to growth of mold.” And she admitted that the containers of bulk jam used in her restaurants “sometimes” would develop a layer of mold that she had instructed her staff to remove, as well as several inches of the jam below, before serving them, often atop a piece of toast slathered with fluffy ricotta cheese.
The statement followed a barrage of complaints from people claiming to be former employees describing stomach-churning scenarios and one particularly disgusting photo purporting to show a bucket of scraped-off mold.
Joe Rosenthal, a mathematician, food blogger and self-described “food antagonist,” began assembling their grievances and posting about his conversations with current and former employees in an Instagram story he labeled “The Fungal.”
In her statement, Koslow, whose jam cookbook hits bookstores next week, said she was acting on the advice of experts in the handling of large jam containers. “With this bulk jam, over time, mold would sometimes develop on the surface that we handled with the guidance of preservation mentors and experts like Dr. Patrick Hickey, by discarding mold and several inches below the mold, or by discarding containers altogether,” she wrote.
Reached by phone in Edinburgh, Scotland, Hickey — a mycologist who studies the structures of mold growth — seemed perplexed that Koslow would drop his name. He does not recall having ever met or spoken to her, he said. He did give a 2014 interview to the BBC in which he suggested that some moldy items found in people’s home refrigerators, including jam, would probably be safe to eat with the mold removed. But a commercial operation is far different, he noted in an interview.
For one thing, he said, there’s no way of knowing how much of the jam below the surface has been contaminated. “There’s a danger that the toxins could build up in that jam and diffuse down deeper,” he said. Another risk is to people working around the area where the scraping was done, he added. While most people breathe in plenty of mold in their everyday lives, scraping mold off — and depositing it into a bucket — could create high concentrations.
Depending on the type of mold, the spores could cause infections, particularly in immunocompromised people, he noted.
Randy Worobo, a professor of food microbiology in the food science department at Cornell University, also called the method unsafe. “Once the mold is on the surface, no matter how you remove it, there will be some mold that carries on,” he said. “Basically, they’re just inoculating the next level.”
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that any moldy jam be discarded.
While Koslow explained that low-sugar jam is more likely to develop mold, Worobo said there are ways to make and store even low-sugar jams safely, including cooking the fruit to higher temperatures and storing it in smaller containers or sleeves that minimize contact with air. “It’s an unacceptable product quality for a retail level,” he said of a mold-coated jam. “There are a lot of questions for this bakery.”
Koslow did not respond to emailed questions about whether the image of the mold-filled bucket was, in fact, taken at her restaurant and what kind of instructions were given to employees about handling mold.
The complaints, though, soon went beyond the moldy jam. Employees accused Koslow of hiding the operation from health inspectors by closing off an “unvented” and “illegal” kitchen where the jam was stored. According to conversations that Rosenthal posted, employees claimed that they were shut into the darkened kitchen during health inspections.
Koslow responded to an emailed question about this kitchen, saying that around 2013, when she acquired the space next to Sqirl for the takeout operation Sqirl Away, the kitchen in that space “fell off the radar of the Health Department.”
“Ashamedly, I took advantage of their oversight and did the best we could as we used Sqirl’s main kitchen for all our restaurant orders including jam, and used the secondary kitchen primarily for baking and food prep,” she said in the email, although she said jam was never made — only stored — in the secondary kitchen. And she said the Department of Health has been aware of it since 2018, and that it now has an “A” grade.
She also promised to end the practice of removing mold from jam and will use the same “hot pack” process for the bulk jams that she does for the retail products. “I realize that I was wrong and I am sorry,” she wrote.
“We have already thrown out any jam with mold on it and will continue to do so moving forward,” she wrote. “Jam with mold will not be permitted in any of our kitchens or our restaurant.” She added that she is submitting samples of Sqirl jam to an outside lab for testing “to ensure its safety and longevity.”
As the stories circulated on social media, the complaints against Koslow, who has cultivated a cool, entrepreneur-next-door persona, grew. Two former employees also accused her on social media of appropriating their work as her own, according to Rosenthal’s posts.
Former Sqirl chef de cuisine Javier Ramos wrote in an Instagram comment that Koslow “took credit” for his work and that he “didn’t get recognition or payment for the recipes that I contributed to the cookbook.” Former chef Ria Dolly Barbosa similarly said that her contributions to the cookbook weren’t acknowledged and that she wasn’t paid or credited for recipes she wrote on behalf of Sqirl for Bon Appétit and Food & Wine magazines. Koslow “took credit for the first two years I was her chef there,” she wrote.
Koslow said that such practices are common among restaurants but that she uses social media to give chefs props. “This model where gifted chefs create and the restaurant becomes known for their food is not a new phenomenon in our industry,” she wrote. “Unlike the vast majority of restaurants, I have done my best to regularly credit our chefs in our social media as recognition for their contributions to Sqirl and will continue to do that.”
Despite Koslow’s apology, the controversy has taken a toll. Diaspora, a California spice company, on Sunday disavowed its recent collaboration with Sqirl, a rhubarb-hibiscus jam scented with cardamom that as of Monday afternoon was still available on the bakery’s website.
“After hours of conversations with Sqirl employees (current and former), a mold expose, and some difficult convos with Sqirl leadership, we are here to say this collab was a mistake,” the company wrote on an Instagram post. “We knew maybe 1% of everything that was going on at Sqirl.”
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