spaghetti with caramelized onions and bacon.
and there's no way around this — we have to talk about media coverage of sqirl.
(let’s hope this embeds properly.)
after two-ish years of wanting to learning to shoot and edit video, i am finally trying — and, wow, i have whole new levels of respect for the korean cooking youtubers i watch. filming yourself cooking is hard, especially when you only have one baby tripod.
yesterday, i made the spaghetti with caramelized onions and bacon as written in sanaë lemoine’s the margot affair on page 185, and i tried shooting it. you can see the one-minute video above. the recipe i made up follows:
slice two small onions. heat olive oil and butter on a pan over medium-low heat until the combo shimmers. turn the heat down as low as it goes and dump your sliced onions onto the pan. don’t touch it until the bottom layer browns; give the onions a little stir once in a while, letting them caramelize low and slow for anywhere between an hour and two.
cut two slices of bacon into bite-sized pieces. boil water, cook spaghetti, and drain, reserving pasta water for sauce.
remove caramelized onions and set aside. bring heat up; cook bacon on the same pan. add caramelized onions and a splash of wine, then some reserved pasta water. get all that fond off the bottom of the pan. add cream. add spaghetti. mix, mix, mix. eat with freshly-grated parmesan while reading the margot affair.
what i really want to talk about is media coverage of sqirl.
sqirl is possibly one of the most hyped restaurants in this country, and i’ve heard plenty about it but have never eaten there because i will not queue for food. i’ve had no real interest in sqirl or in jessica koslow (founder/”chef”) until this whole thing blew up, and i have no real skin in this game.
last weekend (two weekends ago?), koslow came under fire, first for making and serving moldy jam and, then, for stealing the work of her chefs and cooks of color. reading initial coverage of this blow-up, even after the accounts from former sqirl employees started coming out, you may have thought it had solely to do with moldy jam. i’m actually not going to sit here and provide a summary of everything because that would be exhausting — and, besides, google is your friend.
this may not surprise anyone reading this, but i’ve been massively disappointed by coverage of this scandal. i’m going to use eater here — i know i keep pointing at eater (i’ve poked at them before and will probably poke at them again in the future), but the truth is that i read a ton of eater — eater does a good job of aggregating news, and i appreciate some of their longform content. however, i think their coverage of sqirl, honestly, is a great example of how food media is failing to reckon with its role in the current state of food. that includes the lionizing and idolizing of celebrity chefs — and, yes, i include dave chang in that.
i actually find two pieces in particular to be pretty solid examples of why food media is part of the problem: “why the internet is blowing up about la’s most infamous jam maker” by jaya saxena and “there’s no i in jam: sqirl wrestles with the question of who really owns a recipe” by farley elliott. i’ve sat on this substack for over a week now because i’ve been second-guessing myself, wondering if i’m just reading something strange into these articles, which others have praised. this continues to bother me, though, so here we are.
i’ll stick to these two articles, but, in general, i think a lot of the writing around sqirl has been done in the name of self-interest, with many caveats provided to allow koslow an out instead of pushing back against her rote statements. food media has ground to defend; it has actively contributed to the lionizing of sqirl (and, in connection, koslow); and, as such, to call koslow into question would require that food media reckon with its own past behavior. as such, both articles are tinged with a whole lot of defensive, reducing the issue down to (1) moldy jam and (2) the question of “who should get credit for what?” the first is a legitimate issue, yes, but a good diversion, and the second is incredibly reductive and ultimately disingenuous.
i do believe that there does need to be greater clarity behind who is coming up with the food at restaurants, but the thing is — we take it in good faith that the executive chef is driving the creativity by (1) setting the underlying creative vision, (2) contributing the driving point-of-view, and (3) supporting sous chefs and cooks by providing opportunities for them to flex their creativity. that might be an idealistic view, and i am not so naive as to believe that this is mostly the case in the food industry. the point i’m trying to make, though, is that we take this in good faith and we assume that the person claiming chef-dom is more than qualified to do so.
i’m not scandalized by the notion of recipes by people other than koslow being absorbed into sqirl; that’s part and parcel of most jobs. for example, at my last job, i was the writer and content creator, and it was understood that the work i generated would be taken by the company, including ghostwriting i did for my boss, which meant writing anything from blog posts to emails to interviews with major publications. this isn’t unheard of.
in this case, though, the question of “who should get credit for what?” is disingenuous because that’s not really the issue. here we have yet another white woman who was consuming and profiting off the creative labor of people of color. it would be one thing had koslow simply been a restaurateur, but she was taking the title of chef, pretending to be on the line during busy brunch hours, but not really touching the food. in other words, koslow has been happily lapping up the credit of chef-dom, simply taking from the people she would hire and, as javier ramos, chef de cuisine from 2014-17, put it, expecting them to create a “narrative for jessica” around their recipes.
in other words, she’s been acting in bad faith, really bad faith. and nothing in either of the statements she’s released shows any kind of compunction or, honestly, any awareness of why she’s being called out. publications like eater aren’t helping, implying that people on the internet are simply happy to see sqirl, an overhyped restaurant, taken down when people aren’t really being that petty. sqirl changed the landscape of a neighborhood; it is fair for people to feel things about sqirl finally being held accountable in some way. that’s also such a high school argument, the whole omg-you’re-just-jealous bullshit. is that really what a major food publication has to say?
let’s be clear: to take this issue and spin it into a broader question is a subtle form of gaslighting. doing so works to delegitimize the frustrations of the various poc chefs and cooks when it came to having their work stolen by a white woman, one who didn’t have the skillset to do the job she was claiming to do and was happy to come into a specific neighborhood and gentrify it. if you actually listen to what former employees are saying, it’s clear that this isn’t a case of chefs and cooks contributing dishes to a restaurant but of chefs and cooks of color being expected to provide the creative labor so a white woman can profit and succeed.
you cannot talk about sqirl without talking about race and and the skewed power dynamics of racism.
by generalizing the issue, media opens poc up to criticism because it sounds like they’re just whining when this is how things are, of course, recipes you develop for a restaurant are going to be subsumed by said restaurant, it’s unprofessional to whine about things like this. the implication is that poc should just shut up because this is the system, and they should be happy to contribute. it’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s also a way for food media not to take responsibility for their part in propping up this skewed, racist system. food media is both beneficiary and perpetrator of this very same skewed, racist system, after all.
the question food media should be asking is, what are the circumstances that allowed a white woman to pull this off without consequence for so many years? who are all the players who contributed to her rise, whether it’s food media or an awards group or fellow high-profile chefs? who are the players today who are giving her an out instead of pushing back against her faux-apology, just like who are the players today who are letting white people like adam rapoport and alison roman and so many others off the hook and failing to hold them accountable? what is the point of a media that won’t punch hard?
in a 2016 profile with eater, koslow spoke about specifically coming into the neighborhood she did for the price, about wanting to run people out of the church next door — that alone should have raised so many flags. instead, food media has lauded this white woman, vaulting her to high status, and, instead of taking this opportunity now to step back, self-examine, and pivot, food media is failing, yet again, to reckon with how it is complicit in a corrupt, racist system where celebrity chefs, most of whom are white, are given too much clout while cooks and kitchen workers, many of whom are people of color and/or undocumented, labor away unseen.