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California Dreaming

The irresistible allure of Jessica Koslow's Sqirl, the restaurant at the center of New York's undying, sun-soaked fantasy of Los Angeles

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Late on a Friday morning this summer, I sat down at a wobbly two-person table outside Sqirl, a tiny counter-service restaurant on the edges of Silver Lake, one of Los Angeles’s hipper neighborhoods. My friend and I attempted to blend in with the rest of the clientele — local screenwriters and hot dads who somehow have the time to laze about during the day and graze on frittatas and malva pudding cake — all of us an incongruous tableau on a remarkably average strip of Virgil Avenue, which Sqirl shares with Twig & Twine floral arrangers, Fiestecita Party Supply, Marshall Security Training Academy, and a cash-only Chinese restaurant called Wah’s Golden Hen.

As our table filled up with bowls of spring onion hash and crispy rice salad and glasses of rhubarb lemonade, we looked at the spread with a sense of giddy awe. Everything was Technicolor, an overwhelming bounty. Before breaking into a gargantuan slice of ricotta-and-jam-topped toast, I snapped a photo of our table on the sidewalk, sun-dappled and brimming with vegetable things, and posted the image to Instagram. After we’d finished our meal and left, I saw that another friend — who lives a few blocks from me in Brooklyn — had left a comment: "I’m on my way there right now!"

My trip to Los Angeles this summer was my second in a year, but last time I had mostly eaten burritos and potato chips. This trip would be different, decidedly more food-focused; I almost expected eating at Sqirl to be a little like seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. For a certain stripe of out-of-town visitor (me), a meal there has come to symbolize everything that defines the most stereotypically bourgeois notion of a contemporary Los Angeles lifestyle right now: photogenic scenery, friendly vibes, food that is both virtuous and delicious. We roll our eyes, then thirst for it anyway.

I still remember the first time I saw that photo in Bon Appétit of a line of beautiful people patiently waiting outside a low-lying, barely marked building, a tree blooming out front. It was a spoon-fed fantasy — that you, too, could be one of the good-looking regulars — and I wanted all of it.

No small part of Sqirl’s appeal is that it has become a destination while remaining a neighborhood restaurant. Breakfast lasts all day, and Jessica Koslow, the restaurant’s chef and owner and unrelenting engine, has indisputably proven that breakfast food can be skillfully made, thrilling, and accessible, all at once. Her grain bowls and hashes and salads (yes, breakfast salads!) scream with acid and spice and herbs and the funk of fermentation; they present vegetables as their most precious assets; they finely hone textural contrasts; and they mostly keep fats and sauces at bay — except for that famous slab of burnt brioche, dripping with heaps of ricotta. The pastry case gleams with fruity upside-down cakes, bitsy rugelach, elegant little financiers, and the now-cult-favorite malva cake, its oozing, buttery heart hidden by a crackly sugary shell. And then there’s the kabbouleh, a wily combination of crisped rice and kale that Bon Appétit once called "the vegetal equivalent of a viral video," because how else could a millennial understand it?

Koslow has been anointed by East Coast-based food media as the bastion of all things Californian and vegetable-forward and exciting and new, and more than any other restaurant right now, Sqirl represents the newest generation of something that East Coasters have been fawning over for decades: California cuisine. In the New York Times, Mark Bittman deemed Koslow’s food "downright revolutionary," a cuisine "whose time has come." (He would also like to think of Koslow as his "culinary soul mate," which, coming from the author of Vegan Before 6, says a lot about the supposed virtue and perceived class of her food.) She’s in our food magazines and on our Instagram feeds, at pop-ups around the country (and the world), in J. Crew ads, all over this very website, at MAD in Copenhagen, at a Yale symposium chatting sustainability and doing calisthenics with René Redzepi during their off hours (he has, allegedly, very flexible hips). You can buy her jams in Brooklyn; you can buy her limited-run grain bowl at Sweetgreen in LA; you can buy her first cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking right now; and next year, she will open two new establishments, if all goes according to plan.

It would be easy to forget that this all started as a small preserving operation, if it weren’t for the fact that every mention of Koslow leans so heavily on the jams-to-riches part of her story. Koslow found the Virgil Avenue space on Craigslist in 2011, planning to use the storefront to make small-batch, quirkily flavored jams that turned California’s perfect, fleeting produce into perfect, unfleeting spreads. She sold her marmalades and jams at the farmers market for about a year, and then, in October 2012, partnered with Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski, two ex-Intelligentsia baristas, for what was originally supposed to be a pop-up with toast and jam and coffee called Sqirl and G&B. In December, Jonathan Gold published a review, and lines started forming. They’ve never quite stopped.

There was obviously a life before jam. Koslow grew up in Long Beach, and spent much of her youth figure skating competitively, something that her mother — a dermatologist — encouraged because it kept her out of the sun. (About her mother, Koslow says, "She showed me how to find that thing that drives you and just fucking do it.") After college, she worked in pastry, and then in digital production, and then as a bread baker, and then, finally, as a cook. She got her first kitchen job after eating at Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia, a seasonal white tablecloth sort of place in Atlanta that sources much of its produce from the owners’ farm. Koslow wrote a letter to Quatrano, begging to work in the kitchen, and she was hired. There, she learned the value — and the tradition — of preserving.

Even with its long growing season, Atlanta doesn’t have nearly the bounty of California. "Everything was in such small quantities," Koslow remembers. There's not as much land, and the resources aren't as grand as they are on the West Coast. With Southern produce, "you need to preserve it or use it wisely, because you don't have much of it. That's why fermentation, preservation — all that stuff — is so major there." She later found it shocking that nobody in California was doing the same with their ever-present glut of fresh fruit. "I was like, ‘We have so much to work with. Why is no one really taking great care of it and preserving all this beautiful stuff?’"

After her stint in Atlanta, Koslow moved to New York, where she gave up the idea of a $10-an-hour kitchen job in favor of a position as a producer on Fox’s American Idol, which eventually took her to Los Angeles. "That was probably the hardest time of my life," Koslow told me with a touch of that stoner Southern California timbre that her voice picks up when she gets introspective. "It was a really rude awakening. This isn’t what I want do, this isn’t where I want to be. I felt very stuck." For a while, she was night-baking at The Village Bakery in Atwater Village, sleeping for a few hours, then showing up at the office in the morning; eventually the Fox office closed, and she moved back to Atlanta, visions of jam dancing in her head, to work under Quatrano once again.

"The second time she came back, she was like, ‘I’m gonna learn this. This is what I’m gonna do,’" Quatrano told me over the phone. "She asked questions about management of people, and motivating people. She wanted to learn what it takes to be in charge. In a lot of ways you’re a coach or a cheerleader in that environment, and I think she’s very good at that. If you’re working the hardest in the room, you can motivate everybody."

On my second visit to Sqirl, I found Koslow expediting dishes in the kitchen, which she does no fewer than three days a week, at least partly out of a desire to be that cheerleader. "Yesterday I was at Sqirl and I was like, ‘Guys, I'm really tired. I need a day off.’ I probably shouldn't have said that," she'd told me a few days earlier. "They see me there every day. And to have feelings of needing a day off — I don't want to say I can't, but I have to be the force that is nonstop every day. It's taxing on me, as a person who is human, to sometimes not be able to walk that line."

After she stepped out, we ordered some food at the counter together and went next door, to a large storefront currently being used as Sqirl’s storage space, its walls lined with stacks of produce crates and windows covered with brown paper. We sat at a large folding table in the middle of the room, among servers taking their lunch breaks.

Off the line, Koslow is warm and friendly, quick to laugh and quick to ask questions and quick to make you feel like her pal. When she smiles, it’s an expression of relief. Her eyes — set under a wave of bangs — melt into a lower-key iteration of smizing, but they narrow into a steady focus when her attention shifts; you often get the sense that she is carefully considering seven different things at once. She still carries the sure-footed posture of a figure skater, her blades now swapped out for sneakers in grey and navy, and her demeanor waffling between sprightly and calm, depending on what needs to be done.

When our food arrived, Koslow forensically poked her fork through a salad of shaved plums, sliced string beans, dehydrated soy milk chips, and a lightly creamy dressing, as if trying to solve a riddle. The salad in question was one of the day’s specials, not one of her recipes. Her brow furrowed. "Whose salad is this?" she asked, wanting to know who made it. She politely sent it back. "It needs more—" she started, and Sara Storrie, the general manager, jumped in. "Acid?" Correct. There was no admonishment, only genuine curiosity, like Koslow had trouble imagining something coming out of that kitchen that didn’t excite her. Some specials work; some don’t. After a few minutes the salad returned, fluffed up with arugula, herbs, salt, and the acidity jacked up to eleven. Koslow nodded. Now it tasted like Sqirl.

Much of the essence of the "new California cooking" Koslow refers to in the subtitle of her new cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat, is extracting flavor from immaculate ingredients without relying exclusively on the European method of delivering it via animal or dairy fat. "The heaviness of things is really unappealing to me," she says. "I want it to be weighty without being fatty. A lot of times it's brightness by way of some sort of condiment. That's really important."

The paragon of Koslow’s style of cooking is perhaps Sqirl’s famed sorrel pesto rice bowl — a heap of heirloom Japanese-style brown rice from Koda Farms up north, with preserved Meyer lemon (acid), lacto-fermented hot sauce (acid), French sheep feta (tangy [read:acid]), and that sorrel pesto (acid) — which is a child of at least two distinct lineages of California cuisine. The idea, according to Koslow, came after eating a sorrel and salmon dish at Cass House Cayucos, a guesthouse four hours north of Sqirl on California’s coastal Highway 1, and realizing how powerful the lemony herb could be. That dish, in turn, was an iteration of the Troisgros brothers’ famous dish of salmon in sorrel sauce, served at Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France. In the late ‘70s, Michel, the son of one of the brothers (Pierre), worked in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, after his uncle (the famous Jean) became so enamored by the restaurant that he wanted one of his brood to learn in its kitchen. Small world.

At the same time that Michel Troisgros was in Berkeley, many other Northern Californians were "going macro," or dipping their toes into macrobiotics, a nutritional and philosophical program created by George Ohsawa that sought balance within the body. It largely manifested itself in the form of a fuckton of brown rice, most famously via the "macro bowl" that nearly every hippie restaurant has had on its menu for the last 40 years, on top of which was some sort of legume, a pile of vegetables, and — if you’re lucky — a sauce.

While the California ethos of Alice Waters values rustic purity in both ingredients and process, Koslow isn’t afraid to fuss a little: The techniques that lay the foundation for Sqirl’s seemingly casual food include a whole lot of fermenting, dehydrating, pickling, and preserving. That particular combination of ingredients, treatments, and flavors is also what distinguishes Sqirl and its peers from the previous eras of health food, e.g., the one that gave us the macro bowl.

Gerardo Gonzalez, a California-born chef who until recently ran the kitchen at Manhattan’s El Rey, possibly the most California-esque restaurant in New York, believes there have been three distinct waves of health food. "The first wave was extremely culty, like the Source Family restaurant in Los Angeles," he told me, referring to an early ‘70s Hollywood hotspot that blended organic vegetables with a cult of personality and unorthodox spiritual beliefs. Gonzalez locates the second wave in the '80s, when alfalfa sprouts were everywhere and "food just tasted really healthy and kinda bland." And now, in the third wave, Gonzalez says, chefs like Koslow are "looking at superfood-type ingredients and really just tasting them and seeing what they’re like," with often delicious results.

At Sqirl, the food carries a curiously inviolable air of nutritional righteousness, even when every large group at the restaurant seems to be sharing an order of the superlatively caloric ricotta toast. (Even the avocado toast hides a smear of crème fraîche — somehow, Koslow says, the extra fat lightens it up.) There are enough of the right-sounding ingredients listed on the menu — buckwheat and cactus flour pancakes, duck eggs, turmeric tonics, lacto-fermented hot sauces, and nut milks galore — to convince you that you’re doing your body good. It’s not health food but it’s not not health food. It’s athleisure for breakfast.

In Los Angeles, this concept of wellness — and its accompanying low-key aesthetic, a pure union of leisure and bourgeois taste — is entrenched in the city’s contemporary identity, at least for the upper or aspirational classes, and is an inherent part of its allure for New Yorkers. If you lived here, a billboard might as well read, you’d be healthier now. That message is part of the promise of Sqirl: This is sexy, exciting food that someone could, ostensibly, eat every day and still maintain a body that Los Angeles deems generally acceptable.

The next-door space where Koslow and I ate lunch will, at some point, become part of Sqirl Away (get it?), a long-in-the-works takeout spot with food that bears a Sqirly fingerprint, but that’s "beautifully ready to eat on the go." Think salads that travel well, terrines, and meat-and-three (or "beet-and-three") plates. In a Wall Street Journal piece from June of 2015, Sqirl Away was slated to open fairly imminently. It’d be open already, Koslow told me, if the church that occupies the middle of the three storefronts she’s planned to take over would agree to move. The church has roughly four members, and her 92-year-old landlords don’t have the heart to kick them out until Koslow finds them a new home. "Our lease is like a two-page document that's handwritten," she said. "It's just crazy."

That lease has been one of the less obvious keys to Koslow’s success. Perhaps a more obvious one is her way with people. When we were together, they kept appearing: friends, chefs, acquaintances waiting in line, cute dogs to photograph for the Dogs of Sqirl Instagram account, a boyfriend, an employee to lovingly tease; she is flypaper to conversation. As we finished our lunch, Ari Taymor — the chef at Alma, which now runs all food and beverage at the Standard in West Hollywood — arrived to catch up post-breakfast. They talked dishes and deals, the ever-evolving conversation of how to grow while staying honest.

"You've got to make money," Ari said. "So you've got to figure out: What's your cheat? How much does your cheat affect your integrity as a chef?" Koslow, sitting low in her chair, gestured next door. "My cheat is this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon. The cheat is, like, I pay two dollars per square foot." In the heart of Silver Lake, Sqirl might have been just another casual New American subway-tiled restaurant; on the edge, in an area called Virgil Village, it feels singular. So singular, even, that like many neighborhood arrivistes before it, it has unintentionally become a bastion of the sort of commercial development and gentrification that will eventually push out the businesses and people who have been in the area for years, transforming the fringes in which Sqirl has thrived into the center of something else entirely — something at least partly molded in its image.

Who knows when that church will move and Sqirl Away will open, but Koslow’s expansion plan isn’t limited to that. Next year she will open another, more ambitious restaurant on the west side of the city, in a space that was once an Office Depot and right now looks like an abandoned airplane hangar. The unnamed restaurant’s menu is still churning inside her brain, but she says it will be a "marriage of flavors, very much Eastern European Ashkenazi meets Sephardic," a reflection of her Jewish heritage, with plenty of Middle Eastern influence.

There’s talk of fresh pita, of bagels dreamed up with the help of a certain sticky-bun baker from New York, a spit for shawarma, an open kitchen, and tucked-away hiding places for fermented things. There will be dinner at night and counter service during the day. There will probably be cottage cheese, which Koslow developed an affinity for on a recent trip to Poland. ("Dude, cottage cheese is gonna get a serious resurgence. I’m all about it.") She also wants to bring back prunes, oft forgotten except as a laxative, and carob, normally cast off as a weird health food but great, she says, as a syrup. "These are really delicious foods that are being forgotten about," Koslow laments. "Those are the things I’m interested in."

This restaurant will work in tandem with a recently purchased farm in Malibu, which will supply things like tropical fruit and cactus, and where Koslow plans to set up a fermentation lab. She and her team will be dryland farming there, in an attempt to propagate crops that make sense in a dry climate. "I think the new California cuisine is very much about the question of, ‘What is our land really able to provide us?’" she explained. "It’s a really interesting conversation about what food can be in California."

Much of the conversation around "California food" — at least as presented in glossy magazines and on Pinterest boards and Instagram — whitewashes California’s culinary identity, particularly in Los Angeles, where Korean food and Mexican food are far more integral to the city's restaurant culture than cold-pressed green juices and quirky grain salads, especially for the longstanding immigrant communities that have settled there, whose traditions so frequently "inspire" famous chefs and and fashionable establishments. (Even David Chang’s blurb for the Sqirl cookbook subtly acknowledges the blinding whiteness of this vision of California while uplifting Koslow's work: "I never understood why white people loved toast so much until I had theirs.") The reality of LA’s — and maybe California’s — current gastronomic scene at its best might be most accurately represented downtown at Grand Central Market, where a coffee shop like G & B shares space with businesses like Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, a longer-standing stall that sells a thousand servings of carnitas each day.

And yet, the story of modern California cuisine, as it is typically told in popular cookbooks and magazine articles, begins at Chez Panisse, opened in 1971 by Alice Waters (a Montessori teacher) and Paul Aratow (a film producer). Their admiration for the culinary traditions of rural France and near-fetishization of quality ingredients helped upend the national scourge of fussy French restaurants serving bland, sauce-blanketed proteins and flavorless vegetables atop white tablecloths. In The United States of Arugula, David Kamp’s 2006 chronicle of the rise of the modern food movement, Waters is quoted saying, "The mixed-green salads — for sure, you can blame me for them."

"But that wasn’t really California cuisine," Jeremiah Tower countered, when he spoke to me over the phone from his home in Mérida. "It was French bistro cooking." Tower arrived at Chez Panisse in 1972 with great aspirations, no professional experience, and a taste for grandeur, cocaine, and Krug. He left six years later on rocky terms, and he and Waters have spent the intervening decades disputing who deserves the credit for Chez Panisse’s culinary legacy. (Waters did not respond to my requests for an interview.) In more recent years, Tower has continued to minimize Chez Panisse’s influence while ascribing to LA a greater role than the city had previously been given when it comes to the earliest years of "California cuisine." In a 2012 interview, he recounted that "this all started in Los Angeles… the approach that you just cooked whatever you could find that was excellent in terms of ingredients."

As early as 1982, the New York Times was describing the transition of vegetarian food from health food to cuisine. But the concept of the restaurant as we knew it was also shifting. The opening of Stars, the restaurant Tower debuted in San Francisco in 1984, undoubtedly added another layer to California’s emerging culinary identity. Stars was fanciful and relaxed, hedonistic and breezy; R.W. Apple called it "the only truly democratic famous restaurant he had ever seen." As over in Berkeley, the vegetables were precious and the champagne was plentiful, but Alice’s provincial fuss was stripped away. After Stars, California restaurants were no longer tied to antiquated ideas about formality and elegance.

The same year Stars opened, New York got its first taste of the new California palate, when Jonathan Waxman — who had helmed Santa Monica restaurant Michael’s, after a year at Chez Panisse — opened Jams. To what the New York Times described as "a rakish and well-heeled clientele," he served dishes like red pepper pancakes with crème fraîche and two types of caviar, and grilled chicken with French fries. "People were like, What the fuck are you doing?" Waxman remembers. The restaurant’s success wasn’t in transplanting Los Angeles cuisine, but rather translating it for a Manhattan audience. (The restaurant closed in 1988. Last year, Waxman opened a reboot, to lackluster reviews.)

After Jams, New York’s love affair with California cooking shifted away from LA and back to the northern half of the state — Waters’s glory had never faded, the Napa Valley was on the rise, and the austere perfectionism of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry became the ultimate blueprint for the emerging landscape of high-concept, tasting menu-driven fine dining, which held steady for well over a decade. But some time in the last five years, a certain air of "Los Angeles" started to re-emerge in New York.

At El Rey, a tiny, plant-filled spot with white-painted brick walls on the Lower East Side — Gonzalez hooked New Yorkers with beautifully implausible vegan chicharrones served with hot sauce and cashew crema; it’s food he described to me as "for people that are health-conscious but maybe extremely hungover at the same time." The Butcher’s Daughter, a tiny, plant-filled spot with white-painted brick walls on the edge of SoHo, has become a go-to spot for people-watching and green juice-drinking. Dimes, a tiny, plant-filled spot whose white walls are smooth, peddles chia pudding to the fashion set (and now caters for the recently opened club for Cool Ladies, The Wing, obviously). White tile and potted succulents and insouciantly glowing skin abound.

As New York restaurants begin to adopt certain facets of this New LA cuisine, the same New Yorkers they’re trying to attract are slowly migrating to LA itself. The question that follows is this: How long does LA get to be this notion of LA? For how long can young, starry-eyed East Coasters project their fantasies onto the city and move west in search of cheaper rents and sunnier skies and tastier produce until this influx ruins everything they came to find? At times, in a way, Sqirl can feel overrun by tourists (hello!), an unwitting gathering place for all the New Yorkers who come out here to drink the Southern California waters at the source.

Sqirl’s expansion is a question not of whether, then, but of how. Koslow, faces the issue of scaling something so defined by its constraints, by its right time-right-place-right-person success. How do you make magic strike twice? She says that David Chang has told her to just open up a million Sqirls, that his life would have been far easier if he had just replicated the first Momofuku Noodle Bar all over the world. "I think it’s great advice," she said. "I just don’t think I can take it."

Koslow has considered expanding Sqirl to New York, of course, but she wants the city to stay fun for her, to not turn her time there exclusively into a neverending work obligation. There are restaurants in the city that excite her: Uncle Boon’s, Wildair, Estela, Superiority Burger. Each has its own indelible fingerprint, just like Sqirl, and each shares the levity that Koslow so loves. But LA is where she can keep her hands in everything at all times, no matter how many restaurants she runs, staying immersed in the menu and the design and the lives of her employees, in a relationship that makes her happy, in a world she’s created. She can build something completely different from Sqirl, play with a whole new menu, while keeping Sqirl alive. You can tell she really loves it out here, and it makes you want to love it just the same way. "I want to eat at a restaurant where I can taste the chef having fun," she tells me, giving that last word the weight of the entire world.

Koslow and I met at Sqirl at 6:45 on Wednesday morning for her weekly Prius pilgrimage across town to the Santa Monica farmers market. (We were supposed to meet at 6:30, but her dog, Munk, was being too cute, and she needed to cuddle with him for a few extra minutes; she texted me a photo as proof.) After espresso at the restaurant and some inquiry into a coffee grinder on the fritz, we began the long slog west, at the mercy of traffic and Waze. For breakfast, we stopped at Gjusta in Venice.

Where Sqirl is the quirky, punky, small-but-scrappy indie star of LA’s restaurant scene, Gjusta and its big sister restaurant Gjelina, helmed by chef Travis Lett, are its refined, luxurious counterparts, backed by a glam squad of capital and manpower. As we pulled up to Gjusta, someone directed us into the parking lot, to which Koslow responded with a little hm!, delighted at the idea of having that kind of capacity. I realized she was twirling a crystal in her hand quietly. Inside the market-style restaurant, everything was airy and calm, with rows and rows of pastry cases and a vast kitchen bustling behind the counter. The gray morning poured in through skylights and lended everything a sexy, languid haze.

We ordered and stood at the espresso bar, a thick slab of white marble so luxe it’s laughable. You could rollerskate through here and not make much of a fuss; some stylish beach bum probably has. It’s almost vulgar, and I hate how much I adore it, or at least covet it, or at least covet what it’s trying so hard to sell me, which is the idea that I could somehow be a rich happy tan person who never gets melanoma and feels completely satiated after eating a salad. Carefree sexy food promises carefree sexy people. The pastries are enormous and the thigh gaps are abundant.

Somehow, as a New Yorker, the Sqirl fantasy seems more reasonable to me — it’s far easier to project myself onto a scene of salads eaten on wobbly tables than one of salads eaten among elegant marble. At Gjusta, I felt like I was cosplaying a fancier, chiller, more put-together version of myself. I can’t imagine anyone likening it to Cheers, as Koslow has Sqirl. Both places have clearly constructed their own version of secretly-high-maintenance leisure, but there I was far more aware of it. I was also very aware of the fact that I had not showered.

Our breakfast order was a carb bonanza: a raisin roll, a slice of egg-topped mushroom pizza, and a chunky slice of a babka-like loaf whose laminated layers are separated by slicks of a lemony glaze. I will be thinking lascivious thoughts about the latter for months. We eschewed the fruit bowl, but Koslow argued that — aside from the pastries and the space itself — the restaurant’s produce is the draw for her. "I come here because I know where it's coming from," she said, explaining with thinly veiled envy that Gjusta and Gjelina have a designated market person, someone whose sole job is to source the most marvelous produce from the city’s best farmers market, which happens to be a few blocks away in Santa Monica.

As we drove over to the market, I asked Koslow whether cooking "California food" is, for her, an intentional act. "It's inherent," she said. "It's inherent in the food that's coming out just because of all the produce and how we're all driven by the market. Sqirl is driven by the market in very different way than Gjusta is. I still see them as the fig on the plate" — a reference to Alice Waters and her famous (or maybe infamous) presentation at Chez Panisse of perfect produce, unadulterated by any other ingredients or manipulation. As much as the most perfect fruit has become an essential touchstone of California food, that ideal set of ingredients also serves as a class marker: It’s the pretense hiding behind an unpretentious style of cooking, and often a central criticism of Queen Alice and her kingdom. "They can do things like beautiful Santa Rosa plums in a bowl," Koslow said of Gjelina. "It's so nice."

Koslow gets that flawless plum, but you’ll almost never see Sqirl serving it as is. It’s a stylistic difference, but also a business decision, a way of making up for her cheat — the low rent conferred by Sqirl’s out-of-the-way location. Her clientele willingly undertake a pilgrimage to experience her way of seeing things, which means her way of manipulating things. "We find the perfect fruit, then we turn it into jam," she explained. "Very rarely will you see fruit on a plate. If we had fruit on a plate, why would anyone go to us?"

Last spring, the team behind Gjelina announced that they’d be opening up a restaurant in Manhattan, somewhere in NoHo. Rumor has it they’re bringing a farmer out east with them, who will be growing produce on Annie Leibovitz’s land upstate, a Styles Section spread waiting to happen. It remains to be seen how, and whether, they’ll be able to scale the idea of California that they’ve cultivated in Venice, or whether they’re even going to try. It’s easy to joke that New Yorkers don’t deserve nice things like Gjelina or Sqirl; the reality is that real estate prices and growing seasons and space make that niceness prohibitive on the East Coast. And maybe that’s the way things are supposed to be. What the hell will Gjelina New York’s menu look like in early March?

The Santa Monica farmers market was just what I’d expected, only more of it: blocks and blocks and blocks of laughably plentiful produce, a view of the ocean, more chefs per capita than any other weekly event in the country, maybe. Sqirl’s chef de cuisine, Javier Ramos, caught up with us, bragging about the deal he got on some plums. It’s not that the goods on offer appeared shockingly different from what I can get at any other farmers market, but that there’s so much of them, that their consumption happens so casually. There’s a very oh this old thing? vibe going on. The crowds were massive but still people moved languidly from stall to stall, stopping to chat and smell and look. Nobody appeared stressed. The ocean was so close I wondered whether I could throw a pluot into it. Maybe if I were swoler.

One of Sqirl’s best-loved products is an aprium and olallieberry jam, which sounds like a Roald Dahl foodstuff but is in fact a fruit spread made from an apricot-plum hybrid and the berry that tastes, according to the Sqirl website, "like a boysenberry mixed with a blackberry." Koslow brought me to a stand where she negotiated a few flats of ollalieberries; ever since the Bloomberg profile profile of her last year, they seem to be one of her favorite ingredients to buy in front of journalists. Each week during the summer, Sqirl spends about $4,000 on fruit. At just one stand, the flats of apricots and tomatoes Koslow came away with stacked up to roughly person-height.

Koslow and Ramos and some Sqirl line cooks and I all began to load up the car, hefting berries and plums like some sort of farm-to-table crossfit challenge. Ramos and the other cooks took a few more flats of produce back to the other car on their dolly, a bunch of tatted-up, gauge-eared boys giggling together and bragging about deals on berries; they may as well have been trailing a Radio Flyer. "Look at how cute they are," Koslow said, somewhat maternally. "They all love each other." When we got back in the car, the smell of fruit was already overwhelming.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we started to drive back across town to the restaurant. The light was already changing, moving its way toward golden and fuzzy. Even when you’re sitting in traffic, it can still tug at your soul. It’s not a very nuanced thing — just like how, at the end of the day, Sqirl’s food is good because it tastes fucking great, California is good because it’s wonderful and warm and dreamy and it doesn’t wear on your soul the way New York does. Also the produce is better, and they have asparagus in February. People here go to the farmers market like I go to the bodega.

I’d spent the week with friends driving me around and allowing me to loll my head out of their windows like a dog, pointing to each palm tree like it was something noteworthy. We drove through the hills and walked through the hills and did mushrooms and went bowling and I giggled the whole time. They nudged me to make the move, and then I left, and the thought was left to stew, an inkling becoming an inevitability.

The bourgeois fantasy of LA is just a fantasy, sure, and people have real jobs here, and not every weekend is spent wearing soft fabrics in the desert, and the place still teems with gross inequality and poverty and misery, but nevertheless the appeal sinks into you. It falls in from the mountains and it’s creepy and pervasive and feels like butterflies. Explaining all the times I felt the wistful rush of I feel like I am in a movie, isn’t it great to be alive here that week would embarrass me even more than copping to the fact that I’m moving out there in a few days, just for the winter, or at least that is what I am telling myself. Mostly because I can, and why wouldn’t I want to be happy and warm instead of cold and sad for a few months?

After the Prius made it back to Sqirl, Koslow and I unloaded the fruit and carried it back into storage; an hour later, service would be over, and the kitchen would shift to jam-making. But for now, each seat on the sidewalk was taken by someone picking at their toast or finishing up a rice bowl while reading a book, or having a meeting over some toast and tea. When I said my goodbyes to Jessica, she literally pirouetted away from me, and trotted over to say hello to a friend who was eating on the patio. It looked like a nice life.

Marian Bull is writer living in Brooklyn (for a few more minutes).
Julia Stotz is a photographer based in Los Angeles.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Additional editing by Meghan McCarron and Helen Rosner
Fact checked and copy edited by Dawn Mobley
Thanks to Sonia Chopra and Matthew Kang

Read more Eater Features:
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The Highly Anxious Herbivore’s Guide to Moral Vegetable Consumption by Jon Methven
Ina Garten Does It Herself by Choire Sicha


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