food news

Mold? In My Trendy, Artisanal Jam?

Los Angeles media darling Sqirl is at the centre of troubling workplace allegations that have been dubbed "The Fungal".
14 July 2020, 9:00am
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Photographer: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Food Twitter had two things on its mind this weekend: cake memes, and moldy jam.

Since it opened in 2011, Jessica Koslow's Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl has been positively fawned over for its "new California cooking" and artisanal jams (including by MUNCHIES). "For a certain stripe of out-of-town visitor (me)," wrote Marian Bull for Eater in 2016, "a meal there has come to symbolize everything that defines the most stereotypically bourgeois notion of a contemporary Los Angeles lifestyle right now." No trip to Sqirl is complete without Instagram proof of its toast: thick-cut bread topped with a ricotta cloud and bright swipes of its signature small-batch jam. Sqirl's jam is the focus of a cookbook due next week, but following recent allegations, it's now also the center of a microbial controversy.

In a series of Instagram stories titled "The Fungal," scientist and self-described "food antagonist" Joe Rosenthal shared claims against Sqirl, screenshots of which circulated on Twitter. Testimonials from current and former employees allege that the restaurant had a separate space hidden from health inspectors where jam was improperly cooled and stored with lids off, allowing it to develop a thick layer of mold. As recently as this week, employees allegedly removed mold from the jam under Koslow's guidance, deeming it "satisfactory for use once mold was scraped off." (Rosenthal also shared a photo from one of his sources of a bucket of mold scrapings from the jam.) When inspectors visited the restaurant, Koslow and her team allegedly instructed employees to hide "locked in this illegal kitchen space, with the lights off." And on top of all that, the restaurant and this hidden space reportedly had a rat and roach problem. Sqirl's high-end jams retail for $14-17 per jar, or $180 for a yearly jam subscription.

In response to the allegations, Koslow stated through Sqirl's Instagram that the restaurant has an A rating from the health department and that its jams have always been made "legally and always labeled accordingly." She added that the low sugar content and lack of commercial pectin or stabilizers in its jams—part of their initial appeal—result in a product that's "more susceptible to the growth of mold." Comparing it to the mold growth on cheese, charcuterie (think: the white mold on salami), and dry-aged beef, she wrote that discarding the mold, and the inches of jam below it, was done with "with the guidance of preservation mentors and experts." (MUNCHIES has reached out to Sqirl for comment and will update with a response if we receive one.)

But as the New York Times' California restaurant critic Tejal Rao has pointed out, while this practice is accepted by the USDA for hard salami and hard cheese, the agency does not recommend it for jams and jellies. "The mold could be producing a mycotoxin. Microbiologists recommend against scooping out the mold and using the remaining condiment," says the USDA's Molds on Foods fact sheet. Similarly, the National Center for Home Food Preservation's official guidance is to regularly check homemade jam for "mold or yeast growth, or off-odors" and to "discard the product immediately if any signs of spoilage are detected." According to Michigan State University, low-sugar jams are, indeed, more likely to ferment, but that anything fermented or moldy should be tossed, not scraped.

That said, after an interview with mycologist Dr. Patrick Hickey, who Koslow cited as guiding Sqirl's practices, the BBC concluded in 2014, "Fruit normally lasts better than vegetables because the acid in fruit keeps harmful bacteria at bay. The [molds] you find on jam, are fine—just scrape them off." (As Hickey told the BBC, apples are the exception to this, due to their ability to produce the mycotoxin patulin.)

Sqirl announced that it will change its practices for handling bulk jam, but the damage of "The Fungal" has perhaps been done. Spice company Diaspora Co., which recently worked with Sqirl on a rhubarb jam made with its cardamom, pulled their collaborative product after conversations with Sqirl's leadership and past and present employees, and will issue refunds.

As off-putting as moldy jam is, it's just a layer above a much bigger discussion. Scrape it back, and employees allege that Sqirl's work environment was toxic and abusive in other ways, with former chefs like Javier Ramos and Ria Dolly Barbosa claiming that Koslow took credit for their recipes to great success. (Koslow was a recent James Beard Award nominee, and her 2016 cookbook was critically acclaimed.)

Koslow has also made unapologetic remarks about Sqirl's gentrifying effect on the primarily Latinx stretch of Virgil Avenue where it has been located since 2011. As Marian Bull wrote in her 2016 piece, Koslow has attributed part of Sqirl's success to what she calls its "shitty corner" where space comes at "two dollars per square foot," but as the blog Jimbo Times argued just last week, Sqirl's long lines and crowds are the manifestation of "another white wall encroaching upon another once-predominantly immigrant neighborhood," a process that has failed to cater to longtime residents of the community.

Yet again, reality is never as perfect as a well-lit, tightly cropped Instagram post might make it out to be.

UPDATE 7/13/20: Sqirl provided the following statement to VICE via email:

"To my customers and my employees, I want to start by saying that I am sorry.

"Sqirl was built with a vision in my mind and the little money I had saved. We started with boxes as tables and crates for chairs. Like any business, as we started to grow, we needed more space, so in 2013, I acquired a secondary kitchen in the space that is now Sqirl Away (directly next door to Sqirl) and it was permitted to operate as a kitchen. I filed paperwork and proactively contacted the Health Department to request an inspection in 2013.

"The truth is that at the time I thought I could update the additional space with the little funds I had saved. But the job ended up being bigger than I could afford and my bank would not give me a loan. Around that time, our secondary kitchen fell off the radar of the Health Department, despite the fact that Sqirl’s main kitchen received regular inspections. 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.

"We were at risk of being shut down, but in our industry, this is common and I was just focused on keeping the lights on and keeping my team employed.

"Until June of this year, our jam was always made in our kitchen at Sqirl after hours, when the restaurant was closed and then cooled and moved to the secondary kitchen for storage. To be clear: No jam was ever made in the secondary kitchen. Since 2018, the Health Department has known about our secondary kitchen and has worked constructively with us as we modernized our secondary kitchen which has now earned an “A” grade from the Health Department. Today, each of the three kitchens I own and operate—Sqirl, the secondary kitchen, and our catering kitchen—have an “A” grade.

"I take the safety and health of my staff and customers seriously. All of the retail jam we have ever sold—which is to say the jam in jars that is bought from us and at stores—is pasteurized and canned with the “hot pack” method that makes the growth of mold basically impossible. That same recipe is used in the restaurant, but because the jam is low in sugar and we don’t use chemicals or preservatives there were occasional instances where mold would develop on the surface.

"When this happened we would remove it. To guide this practice I relied on the research and guidance of health experts and to my knowledge thought it was safe.

"I eat the same jam I serve my customers, family and friends and would never knowingly serve any food that would put their health at risk. I realize that I was wrong and I am sorry.

"We have already thrown out any jam with mold on it and will continue to do so moving forward. Jam with mold will not be permitted in any of our kitchens or our restaurant. We are implementing the same “hot pack” method which is a commercial industry standard that involves pasteurizing all the jam used in the restaurant and storing it in smaller glass containers–just like we always have done with our retail products. We are also submitting samples of our jam to an independent lab, Certified Laboratories, Inc., for testing to ensure its safety and longevity.

"I know I have lost the trust of our loyal customers, partners, and jam subscribers and hope that my sincere regret and these changes demonstrate that I have learned from my mistake and are enough to earn a second chance from them.”

This article originally appeared on VICE US.