In the unraveling of the story of Sqirl over the last weekend, there were so many threads to follow — the alleged erasure of the creative contributions of its employees; the hidden, unregulated second kitchen; the restaurant’s role in the gentrification of Virgil Village — that it was little wonder the photo is what most fully captured the public’s attention: a large plastic container filled with $14-a-jar preserved fruit pressing up from beneath a layer of multi-toned fungus. It was a visceral indicator — and a too-perfect metaphor — that things at the beloved Los Angeles restaurant and jam maker Sqirl were not quite what they seemed.
One of the key discrepancies between how Sqirl presented itself to the world and the reality behind the door of its windowless secret kitchen, numerous former employees say, is that a number of the restaurant’s signature dishes, from the ricotta toast to the crispy rice salad to the jam-stuffed French toast, were not the creations of owner Jessica Koslow, but of the chefs who worked for her — and that their contributions have been largely erased from Sqirl’s story.
Eater has communicated with nearly a dozen current and former staffers at Sqirl and at Koslow’s second restaurant, Onda, and almost all point to problems that they say begin with Koslow herself, who they contend spent little time in Sqirl’s kitchen, even while taking public credit for the work of less visible employees. Koslow is not a chef, they say, but has allowed that title to attach itself to her over time, particularly within food media — resulting in accolades like a Best Chef: California nomination from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
Those workers also say that, for years, a number of them were made to do prep work out of an unlicensed and unventilated kitchen on the property, one not known to the health department until it was reported by a Sqirl employee out of concerns for her own health and safety. Multiple employees allege that they were locked in the room for over an hour at a time during routine surprise health inspections. Koslow herself acknowledges that the unlicensed food preparation area “fell off the radar of the health department,” though she denied in a statement that anyone had been locked inside of it, and says that the space was modernized in 2018 and approved by the health department, earning an “A” grade.
In response to allegations that she has systematically erased or obscured the contributions of her employees, Koslow said in a later statement that she acknowledges that “there’s an existing structure in our industry for how restaurants retain the creative recipes and techniques that many chefs contribute to the place during their employment,” which involves recipes and dishes created in a hierarchical workplace being credited to the named chef, and that she would evaluate her part in that system.
In a follow-up statement, a Sqirl spokesperson pushed further, saying that Koslow, “like nearly every other successful chef-owner, in the early days she spent a considerable amount of time cooking in the kitchen. As it gained popularity and grew, she hired talented cooks to help execute her vision and both collaborate on and develop new recipes for Sqirl.” The spokesperson also asserted, “Why former staff members, many of whom she nominated for awards, credited in public and in media are trying to use this moment to remove her from her own restaurant’s story — her life’s work —is disturbing, particularly when she has repeatedly acknowledged and touted their considerable talents, which have undoubtedly benefited Sqirl.”
The narrative surrounding Sqirl has nearly always been bigger than the restaurant itself, and some of the issues surfaced by what some are calling Moldgate have quietly circulated outside of the public sphere for years. But in a moment when representation and equity are at the forefront of conversations across the country, questions in the restaurant industry about ownership, attribution, and who ultimately gets to benefit have never been more relevant or more forceful.
“It’s telling that some people have been more outraged over the moldy jam than the allegations of unfair treatment and exploitation,” says former pastry cook Elise Fields, who worked at Sqirl from early 2018 through June of last year. “But if that’s the catalyst to get everyone to care about the deeper issue, which is the years and years of completely unfair treatment and exploitation of her chefs’ talents, particularly her POC chefs, then good.”
Fields spent a year and a half at Sqirl as a baker in the pastry department, describing her employment there as “very traumatic and stressful.” “When there isn’t an environment that facilitates care and compassion and actually gives people proper credit where it’s due,” Fields adds, “then it creates a lot of turmoil and resentment.
“There were definitely times when our work was just assimilated and taken for herself,” says Fields, who created new recipes for the pastries in the restaurant’s prominent front case and worked on the decorative cake of the day that went out every morning. Though Fields was credited by name in an LA Times story from 2019 about Sqirl’s strawberry shortcake, she maintains that much of her work went largely unrecognized. “She would just take work and put her name on it,” Fields says of some of Sqirl’s most popular dishes, many of which predate her tenure there, like the jam-stuffed brioche French toast, “and not give her chef de cuisines any credit for the popularity of the sorrel rice bowl, or literally anything else that’s ever taken off on that menu.”
Koslow opened Sqirl in 2012 as a small space for making and selling jam, after returning to Los Angeles to try her hand at television production. She had spent time working in the pastry department of chef Anne Quatrano’s acclaimed Atlanta restaurant Bacchanalia, and had taken the master food preserver curriculum offered by the University of California’s Cooperative Extension. “Sqirl was, really, a jam company,” Koslow told the New York Times in 2015. “I knew it couldn’t stay that way, because I wanted to create a place that worked, long-term.”
Chef Ria Barbosa of Downtown Filipino restaurant Petite Peso was among the first people Koslow hired as Sqirl moved into its more fully realized breakfast and lunch phase, earning praise from Jonathan Gold in its first few months. Outside, some neighbors worried aloud about steep prices and long lines of largely white customers helping to speed the onset of gentrification in the area, a conversation that bubbled up throughout the years, such as when Koslow referred to her Virgil Village restaurant space as a “shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon” in a 2016 Eater profile.
As chef de cuisine from 2012 to 2014, Barbosa and then-partner and sous chef Matt Wilson (Son of a Gun, Rustic Canyon) ran the kitchen. Barbosa found that, as Sqirl’s popularity bloomed, it was Koslow getting credit for the culinary work — like that jam-stuffed French toast, which Barbosa says was an extension of a technique she had picked up while working in Las Vegas, with the idea to stuff jam inside the bread coming from Wilson. But when it appeared as a recipe in Food & Wine in 2016, it was under Koslow’s name only.
Other recipes, spread across media outlets Bon Appétit, are all credited to Koslow, or come from the first Sqirl cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat. Those recipes, like the sorrel pesto rice bowl, employees say, were conceived of and executed by otherwise uncredited staff. A 2015 recipe on Food52 for the restaurant’s crispy rice salad, a house favorite, says the dish is “straight out of the mind of Jessica Koslow.” Multiple staffers credit Barbosa with originating the dish, but her name does not appear on the site’s recipe page. Koslow told Eater via email that the dish was a “true collaboration” between the two, with Koslow wanting to bring a “dry and fry rice” to Sqirl. “Ria turned it into a dish,” she said.
Published in 2016, Everything I Want to Eat is an evocative portrait of the restaurant, from Koslow’s “polyglot cooking” to the “weird little neighborhood” of Virgil Village where the building sits, as Maria Bustillos described it. Though other Sqirl cooks appear in the headnotes for recipes, and in the acknowledgements, Koslow is effectively presented as the book’s sole creator; co-writer Maria Zizka goes unmentioned on the book’s cover.
Javier Ramos, who worked as the chef de cuisine for two and a half years, after Barbosa, from 2014 to 2017, claims that his recipes, some of which appear in the book, got their genesis from the specials board at Sqirl. Ramos says that Ria Barbosa’s role in bringing the cookbook to life was, in addition to having her dishes appear throughout the book, “to take her recipes and create a narrative for Jessica” around them, without crediting herself.
“It certainly hurt,” Barbosa says about seeing that she was largely absent from the cookbook, despite finding many of her and Wilson’s recipes featured there, which she says include not only the ricotta toast, but the sorrel pesto rice bowl. “It’s not my restaurant, [but] I would never take credit for something that isn’t mine.”
A representative for Koslow says the popular sorrel pesto rice bowl “was Jessica’s idea that became a collaboration between Jessica and Ria, that then further evolved after Ria left Sqirl.” The original inspiration, the rep maintains, comes from Koslow and her husband having a salmon and sorrel dish at Cass House in Northern California.
“The restaurant was built by the chef de cuisines, the pastry chefs, the cooks, who all contributed recipes and development,” says pastry chef Sasha Piligian, who worked at Sqirl from 2016 to 2019, and oversaw an overhaul of the prominently displayed pastry case. The recipes of Piligian and her staff would go on to define the pastry department during some of Sqirl’s busiest years, but she says that she found real, meaningful public acknowledgment to be fleeting. Piligian is credited by name for an Armenian shortbread recipe that appeared in the LA Times in 2019, but as with other employees, she feels the issue rests less with one or two specific acknowledgments for a recipe, and more with Koslow’s role in creating the dishes that defined Sqirl in the first place.
The claims that Koslow did not share credit and leadership equitably are not limited to Sqirl. Late last year, as Koslow was preparing to open her second restaurant, a collaboration with the acclaimed chef Gabriela Cámara called Onda, a figure in the early press coverage was the restaurant’s founding chef de cuisine, Balo Orozco, who had previously been Sqirl’s catering chef. Appearing on KCRW’s Good Food and in an Eater profile on the restaurant, Orozco was positioned as one of the key creative forces in the restaurant — translating loose ideas from Koslow and Cámara into actual dishes, like the smoked trout tostada.
But Orozco says he quickly found that his role inside the restaurant was not working as initially discussed. Orozco says that his understanding was that all menu decisions would be handled collaboratively, as Koslow was still running Sqirl and Cámara had moved back to Mexico City to take a seat on the Council of Cultural Diplomacy. “It needed to be a good relationship between her and I,” Orozco says, “but it never happened.”
Instead, the Guadalajara, Mexico-born chef, who spent years working at world-renowned restaurants like Hartwood in Tulum and New York City’s Mission Cantina, says he felt his leadership role was diminished under Koslow, particularly as press and attention rolled in. Koslow, he claims, would “come to one of the line cooks asking them to change dishes,” causing confusion in the kitchen and circumventing his role. Media often did not ask about the provenance of any particular dish, and Koslow did not offer up their origins beyond herself, Orozco says.
“They were all my recipes,” Orozco says. In what he describes as a clarifying moment, he says that, while working to open Onda, Koslow “asked me to send my recipes to her PR person for a magazine.” After waiting to see his work in print, Orozco was dismayed when he realized simply: “My name never showed up.”
“Mine” can be a loaded word in restaurant kitchens, especially when it comes to recipe development, intellectual property, and “ownership” of menu items. Recipes themselves are difficult to copyright, unless they are part of another copyrightable item, such as a cookbook, while recognition can be hard to advocate for on a human level inside restaurants, which often operate as semi-rigid hierarchies. In that hierarchy — the brigade in a classical setup — good ideas, techniques, and menu items often percolate from line cooks, sous chefs, and chef de cuisine up to the head chef, who stamps whatever makes the cut with their imprimatur.
In an episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, for instance, Alinea chef Grant Achatz recounts how, as a young cook at the French Laundry, he developed a caviar and cantaloupe dish that was met with Thomas Keller’s glowing approval — prompting a warning from the older chef that if “we put this dish on the menu, this is now a Thomas Keller dish and you’ll never able to do it again.” Achatz later gives a chef in his own kitchen the same spiel upon the creation of a breakthrough recipe — Alinea’s now-famed edible balloon.
As with tech, art, photography, and other industries, many rank-and-file kitchen workers never receive any kind of public acknowledgement for their efforts. Restaurant menus rarely, if ever, highlight the creators of a dish, although many now note in meticulous detail where that day’s produce was grown, and there is certainly little direct financial reward outside of hope for a raise. Even for the average restaurant cookbook, whose recipes are derived (mostly) from the menu, and require many hands to pull the book together, the actual writing and recipe development is often attributed to the chef and restaurant. It’s an enduring part of the industry — as steadfast as chefs “riffing” on or getting “inspired by” the work of other chefs or restaurants, often without publicly crediting those influences — even as a growing focus on equity, fair pay, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace prompt many to call for an overhaul.
What underlines the issue of recipe credit at Sqirl is the contention from multiple former employees that the label of “chef” has been misapplied to Koslow. While many acknowledge that Koslow routinely works the food expediter station on weekends — a role that focuses on finishing dishes, keeping track of incoming orders, and coordinating with front-of-house staff on food to be delivered to tables, and is its own particular kind of hard work — some of her detractors say that Koslow’s weekend work is more performative than substantive.
“I literally worked for Jessica for almost three years,” says Piligian, the pastry chef, “and I’ve never seen her cook.” She argues that Koslow calling herself a chef publicly was an “opportunistic” move made as media coverage began to roll in, and that the compounding of that misperception has led to many other voices being left out of Sqirl’s story.
Orozco, who was Sqirl’s catering chef before joining Onda, agrees. “She doesn’t cook,” he says.
“She wasn’t in the kitchen cooking; she wasn’t prepping anything that Matt [Wilson] or I created,” Barbosa says. “She wasn’t part of the planning or development.” Barbosa says that she spoke with Koslow about the disconnect between the kitchen staff and her public status as the chef, and was told that the positive press was good for everyone, regardless of who got the credit in the story. “Listen, I don’t even care if you never say my name for the record,” Barbosa recalls telling Koslow, “I just don’t think it’s fair that you’re out there allowing people to call you the chef when you’re not actually doing the work.” (A representative for Koslow declined to confirm specific interactions between her and a former employee.)
“I don’t think that anyone has a problem with her saying that she’s the face of the restaurant, or that she’s the restaurateur,” Ramos says. The “gray area,” to him, comes from the use of the title “chef,” and the work that goes into upholding that title in a kitchen — especially when it comes to award nominations. Ramos was named a rising star chef for his work at Sqirl in 2017, but felt spurned by a James Beard Foundation Award nomination that went to Koslow in 2018.
“Jessica’s claim is that she’s never voiced that she’s the chef of the restaurant,” Ramos says, “and that she gives credit to people on social media. That’s not not true, but the bigger picture is that there is a complete lack of honesty when there are reputable award sources or print magazines like Bon Appétit or Food & Wine around, and the task is relegated to another chef to create a recipe [for her]. This happened to Ria, and it happened to me.” Koslow denies that she ever delegated the task of creating a recipe for a media outlet to an uncredited employee.
Ramos says that he was ultimately terminated from the restaurant when he “asked for her to be transparent” about their roles in the restaurant and with the cookbook, and their relationship fractured. “She wasn’t going to admit that she wasn’t capable of cooking,” says Ramos, “or that all of the recipes in the book were stolen.” (Koslow has previously told Eater that Ramos was fired “for cause,” but has not publicly elaborated. Ramos admits that, particularly at the end of their working relationship, “we were just volatile toward each other.” One anonymous staffer, who has worked at Sqirl for several years, tells Eater that Ramos was polarizing for some, and that at times he was volatile toward other employees as well.)
Representatives for Koslow say that she has worked in a variety of roles in the kitchen during Sqirl’s tenure, and that she did cook food, at least up until 2019, when Onda took a larger focus. Koslow herself calls the narrative that she did not participate in the recipe direction for the restaurant “completely false.”
In an emailed statement to Eater, Koslow writes:
I am imperfect and I have made mistakes, and I am deeply sorry. There is an existing structure in our industry for how restaurants retain the creative recipes and techniques that many chefs contribute to the place during their employment and I will consider my part in this system as we move forward. I am profoundly grateful for their creations and talent and love that go into Sqirl’s menu and I can apologize for and fix my own mistakes, but I am not in a position, standing alone, to apologize for a business structure that is foundational to the entire service industry and the majority of American businesses.
“This practice of recognizing our team publicly lived regularly on our social media,” says Koslow, “and we have worked to nominate our chefs for awards and recognition in an effort to help our cooks get wherever they want to go.” Over the years, Koslow has attributed certain dishes on Sqirl’s menu to the cooks who helped conceive of them, mostly by way of tagging them in social media posts or mentioning their Instagram handle in the caption of the photo. She adds: “Some of the very same people claiming they never received credit are prominently featured on our social media posts, in Sqirl’s cookbook, and in awards they earned during their time here.”
A 2013 blog post on Sqirl’s site following a four-star review from then-LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell reads, in part: “Sqirl is a team of significant talent and it’s the support that we have given to each other over the last year that has allowed this place to blossom into an electrifying food experience. I can take pride in bringing heart and imagination to the space. But as we’ve evolved over the year, the Sqirl team has too, and now we’re really started to hum like a band in a serious groove.”
The post names Meadow Ramsey, then-pastry chef, as well as Barbosa and Wilson, and it gives a nod to others who worked at the restaurant. Ramsey was also among several people mentioned in both recipe headnotes as well as in the introduction of the desserts section of Everything I Want to Eat:
Our pastry chef, Meadow Ramsey, has been with me since the beginning. She has this unbelievable ability to create really smart baked goods for a huge swath of people. We get customers asking for gluten-free cakes, vegan pastries, nut-free cookies, you name it. And Meadow comes up with these baked goods that at first glance seem like things you’ve encountered before. They’re disarmingly friends. But once you take a bite, you realize this isn’t the same old chocolate chip cooking you thought you knew.
“Could have I done more?” Koslow asked in an email to Eater. “Always. Am I so delusional to think that Sqirl’s success is all my own? Absolutely not.”
Koslow continues, “I have never claimed to be the creator and sole perfecter of Sqirl’s recipes, but I understand completely how it may look that way. The truth is far more complicated and nuanced. Many recipes are original creations of our incredible cast of chefs de cuisine, sous chefs, and pastry chefs, (and me), while others are collaborations or iterations of another idea or inspiration. These individuals … are the bedrock of our success and why it has resonated with people.”
And not everyone who has worked for Koslow agrees that she has left her staff in the cold. One multi-year employee, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Eater that “some of the allegations, that she doesn’t know how to cook, can come off as slightly misogynistic.”
One also points to their pay as a sign that Koslow cares. “I literally never made a living wage until I started working here,” they say.
Another current employee told Eater that “Koslow is the best boss I’ve worked with on my entire path.”
Representatives for Koslow provided a statement that strongly disagreed with the notion that she is not the chef of Sqirl. The restaurant “is the realization of her vision,” it reads. “Several of Jessica’s original dishes are still eaten every day by customers and are foundational to what Sqirl is as a restaurant and its place in the food world.”
Koslow does admit that she is “ashamed” about the unpermitted kitchen at Sqirl, and for allowing it to operate in an adjacent space for years without being monitored or regulated by city officials.
“We had conversations amongst ourselves and with upper management, like, ‘What’s the deal with that? That’s not appropriate,’” says one employee. “The response that we received was either ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Yeah, that’s messed up,’ or ‘Jessica doesn’t seem bothered by it.’” Pastry cook Elise Fields says that on multiple occasions, she and other employees (including Sasha Piligian and Meadow Ramsey) were locked inside during unannounced health inspections, and told to remain there with the lights off.
“It was just disgusting,” says Fields of the prep space. “It was not a cool space to work. I don’t know why she felt like that was a healthy environment for her staff to work in for so long.”
Former employee Jacqueline Vaca says that she alerted the health department to the secondary space back in 2018. In an Instagram post on Monday, Vaca says: “I did it because I was extremely concerned about ventilation and safety, particularly for the pastry team who mainly operated from that kitchen… I did it because maybe others were concerned with their job security or reputation. A job means nothing if you’re breathing in mold all day. I’m happy I spoke up even if no real change happened immediately.”
A representative for Koslow says that “everyone was concerned about the unpermitted secondary kitchen, Jessica foremost.” Koslow admits that staff did remain inside the space during health inspections, but says that no one was ever locked in from the outside. The space is now a licensed food preparation area, with an “A” grade from the health department. In a public statement sent to Eater on July 13, Koslow said:
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.
Even while attempting to hold Sqirl accountable, Barbosa maintains that Koslow was, and remains, a keen restaurateur, telling Eater that she is “fucking good at” being the owner and the face of Sqirl, guiding the company to national acclaim, two cookbooks (including a jam recipe book debuting next week), and a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for Best Chef: California for herself.
What do Sqirl’s workers, past and present, want to see from her now, though? More accountability for previous missteps, many say, including — yes — the moldy jam. But, in many ways, “that is the least of the problems,” says Orozco. He, Piligian, Fields, Ramos, Barbosa, and others say that accountability for ideas, and equity with the fruits of shared labor, are important and long-lasting ideals that must be met, at Sqirl specifically and in the industry at large.
“Just say yes,” says former pastry chef Piligian. “Ria made all these recipes. Yes, Javier made these recipes. Yes, Sasha did this, or Gabe or Matt or Cat or whoever. These are the people that are the integral part of making this restaurant go, that contributed to the books, that contributed to all the events. That propped her up for all these nominations. That’s the important part that I don’t want to get lost in all of this.”
In a statement to Eater, Koslow reiterates that she is the “founder, chef, and owner” of Sqirl, but acknowledges that she has to “confront my shortcomings, mistakes, and failings” in this moment. She adds:
I am sorry that decisions I made have hurt the very people I wake up every day wanting to do right by: our customers and my team at Sqirl. Owning up to my mistakes and facing this reality has led me to listen and reflect on how I got here but I believe it will help me and Sqirl emerge better and stronger.
To me, the heart and soul of a successful restaurant are the innovative talents that for a time join a restaurant and devise, and tinker and perfect recipes — giving a part of themselves to the place and its customers. Very few chefs stay at one place for their career, but rather try to find a fit, grow, and then move on to another kitchen.
I will continue to do my best to make this a place that our team can be proud of and customers can have faith in. I hope that people will not take out their disappointment with me on our staff and remember that these are incredible people that are working hard in an industry that has been decimated.