Forty-nine-year-old Baltimorean David Koslowski’s wife Shirlé Hale-Koslowski wasn’t the least bit surprised when, two years ago, the couple discovered that Koslowski is Jewish.
“When we found out,” Hale-Koslowski confided in the JT with a large, cherry-lipped smirk, “I said, ‘It makes sense, because all my other boyfriends were Jewish!’”
Koslowski and his wife have been married for the past 16 years, having met in 1992 during a Pro-Choice benefit concert at which Koslowski’s band, Liquor Bike, shared the bill with Hale-Koslowski’s headlining, pioneering riot grrrl project Womyn of Destruction.
The unique café — which brews up flavorful coffee, serves all manner of delectable healthy-choice vittles made on the premises and boasts an eclectic array of vinyl for record hounds — resides in Mount Vernon’s hipster nexus, comfortably nestled across the way from grocery store staple Eddie’s on Eager Street and separated by a large parking lot from alternative dance club/bar Grand Central.
After giving up the struggling musician/artist lifestyle (both Koslowski and his wife are also active visual artists who briefly shared a studio) sometime around their mid-30s, the creative duo decided to move to North Carolina, where Koslowski attended the School of Communication Arts (now called Living Arts College) in Raleigh.
While her husband worked toward graduating with a degree in digital media and gaining a foothold in the realm of graphic and Web design, Hale-Koslowski caught wind of the nascent “personal chef” industry and started her own business, Four Corners Cuisine.
“I saw somebody on TV who was cooking in someone else’s home, making them meals, packing them up, putting them in the fridge and freezer and moving onto the next house,” Hale-Koslowski breathlessly said. “And I was like, ‘Oh! I want to do that!’”
Hale-Koslowski has been a professional in the culinary arts for the entirety of her adult life, having worked at a dinner theater throughout high school and bounced around from her native Bucks County, Pa., to various shops while attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music (focusing on vocal performance) in Boston; she’s even had stints at Eddie’s and a deli not too far from where Baby’s On Fire now sits.
That was in the late ’80s when, by an astounding coincidence, Koslowski himself lived just down the street. He noted it’s very possible he regularly saw his wife-to-be four or five years before they met at that fateful concert in ’92. Neither remembers having seen the other before, but it does seem to be a case of prolonged beshert of a sort.
The two married in 2000, spent their time in North Carolina and began dreaming up a wacky idea 15 years in the making involving what would be their combination coffee shop/record store.
“I really wanted to do the vinyl thing,” said Koslowski, “but at that time [early aughts], it was all about MP3s and CDs, so that dream stayed on hold for a while.”
In 2012, the husband-and-wife team moved back to Baltimore to be closer to Koslowski’s parents in their dotage. Hale-Koslowski’s own parents had passed by this point, and she had also sold her impressive roster of 30 North Carolina clients to other aspiring chefs in the area, starting fresh in Maryland.
The new goal was to find a commercial kitchen large enough to handle Four Corners Cuisine’s swelling local client list, and meanwhile the record industry was seeing a dramatic uptick in sales courtesy of the likes of Record Store Day, a wide-sweeping nostalgia for vinyl and a new kind of “commodity fetishism” involving more consumers actually wanting to possess the physical object of music rather than mere MP3s. (For similar reasoning, online retailer Amazon.com has begun opening up brick-and-mortar bookstores.)
We love sharing what we find with other people, and this is basically our way of doing that for the community.” — David Koslowski, owner of Baby’s On Fire
All of this leading Koslowski and his wife to believe now was the time to go for their dream that would become Baby’s On Fire.
“At first, we thought the record component would just be a little kitschy thing,” Hale-Koslowski said. “But, actually, it sells as much as the coffee. David had no idea he’d have to be ordering so many records all the time!”
Hale-Koslowski meanwhile runs Four Corners Cuisine out of the ample kitchen connected to the back of Baby’s On Fire as a separate entity that does not involve her husband. She, of course, also supplies the various pastries, paninis and other café fare to the shop.
Koslowski was laid off from his “day job” working as a Web and graphic designer for AOL in August and now runs the café/record store full time, which gives his wife more time to focus on her growing business, which now has multiple employees and nearly 40 area clients.
Hale-Koslowski specializes in individualized diets; for example, one customer purchased her services for a friend who has been going through chemotherapy after recently being diagnosed with breast cancer, requiring a specialized, limited food regimen.
Though Hale-Koslowski is not Jewish — “She’s as Anglo as they come,” Koslowski laughed about his wife’s being “85 percent English; she’s more English than most people in England” — she often works with clients with kosher dietary restrictions and enjoys learning how to make new and relatively exotic Jewish delights.
Having grown up in a predominantly Jewish area with many Jewish classmates and boyfriends, it’s not too challenging for Hale-Koslowski to learn to make, say, raisin kugel, a new favorite of hers.
When one of Hale-Koslowski’s clients asked the obvious question about her possibly being Jewish due to her last name, the personal chef on the run replied that she’s not, but “we think my husband might be.”
Koslowski took a DNA test offered by popular website Ancestry.com to discover that, yes, he is in fact a Polish Jew.
His mother being Irish-French (and who was revealed not to be Jewish after taking the same test as her son), Koslowski went to speak with his father who was at the time in extremis and incapable of being tested.
What Koslowski’s father — who has since passed away — revealed was a startling admission: Their family, which has been in Baltimore since the 1800s, had indeed been Jewish and converted to Lutheranism due to rampant anti-Semitism that had made it difficult to otherwise gain employment.
“A lightbulb went off in my head,” Koslowski said. “I had all of these memories of eating these foods that my grandparents made me when I was a kid, and when I would ask Shirlé to make them, she would say, ‘You know those are all Jewish foods, right?’”
When the information was brought to the attention of Hale-Koslowski’s “bonus parents” — a Jewish couple who had been the parents of a boyfriend she once had before he died tragically in a car accident and had spiritually “adopted” her, going so far as to pay for her college education — Koslowski said they marveled at pictures he showed them of his family.
“Oh, yes!” they told him when they saw the photos. “You’re Jewish. We can always tell our own people. Welcome home.”
For the time being, home for Koslowski and his wife is Baltimore and, specifically, Baby’s On Fire. Now that business is booming, they plan on having a series of special community events at the store every Sunday starting later this month, including live music, DJs, a possible “rock documentary night” (after purchasing and setting up a projector) and regular meetings of the local Kissa Society, a group whose sensibility is based on the Japanese tradition of playing jazz records and discussing the genre in public spaces.
“We love sharing what we find with other people, and this is basically our way of doing that for the community,” Koslowski said. “I don’t know what it is, but we both really get pleasure discovering new things — new food, new craft beer, new wines, new music — and letting other people in on it.”