Girl Crush // Sophie Kaftan of Kitten and the Bear
My great-grandmother spent most of her beautiful final years crocheting. We have a collection of hundreds of her designs, with intricate details that only patient and humble experience could produce these works of art. I transformed some of these pieces into delicate dream-catchers, a nod to my bohemian spirit and an homage to her craftsmanship. These pieces bring a sense of comfort and ease yet feel surprisingly vibrant and new every time you experience them, and that is the way I can describe the whimsy and feeling I get from the remarkable brand Kitten and the Bear, makers of “artisanal preserves and buttermilk scones.”
Creators Sophie Kaftal and Bobby Zielinski are the spirited duo behind this timeless tradition turned contemporary must for your morning ritual. There is so much thoughtfulness and authenticity to this brand, calling it their passion would commonize their creation; they’ve effortlessly crafted their jams through an inspired calling. Their love story followed that same framework; a beautiful journey laid out before them as they breathlessly walked through the unknown and followed their senses. Those instincts now finely tuned into the delicate process from the copper jam pans to meticulously choosing the best seasonal fruits and adding in unique creative flavours. What sets them apart is the artistry, the pure love for every creation and bringing new life to this artisanal tradition. To hear Sophie speak of her life and creative journey is nothing short of inspiring, and yet at the same time so relatable, and we are honored to have her as this week’s Girl Crush.
Kitten and the Bear is rich with tradition and heritage, and that’s obviously something that’s important to you and the brand. Can you describe the process you use in preserving/jamming and why an artisanal life is important to you?
The traditions surrounding jam, tea & scones are based in so much history and heritage, that it was important for us to create a product and experience that is as genuine and true to that tradition as possible. All of our preserves are made traditionally using French hand-hammered copper jam pans. From the very first batch of jam I made in copper, I was in love. Cooking in these bright, shiny, heavy, handmade pans is truly an experience, and allowed me to begin to master what I feel is an artistry within a craft nestled in tradition.
Historically, pure copper pans were prized for jam making as the copper was thought to lend a “shiny,” “glistening” look to the preserve. Now, we know that copper ensures a high cooking temperature and uniform heat distribution (of superior importance in all sugar-work), while the quintessential shape of the pan is engineered to allow for the quickest evaporation of moisture, leading to a fresh, fruit-forward preserve without being overly sweet, and a soft, velvety texture. Every day and with each batch, I strive to achieve a fuller understanding of this process which is as much science as it is visceral and intuitive. There is no greater compliment than when a customer tells us that our jam tastes exactly like her grandmother’s, who made apricot jam straight from her own tree...or that he or she was taken for cream tea as a child, and that our shop reminds them of those experiences.
The journey that brought you to owning a company seems fluid: from corporate world to culinary school to creating jams as a hobby to moving back to New Jersey where the hobby started to take form into something larger. (Did I miss anything?! Ha!). At the time, did it feel natural, as if you were guided to the beautiful company you have now, or what was that experience like?
You got it all! And much more eloquently than I have been able to! We are asked all the time how we fell into this business and this life, and it sounds cheesy, but it truly was a “follow your heart” kind of thing. It absolutely felt, and still feels, completely natural. Of course, growing a business is like raising a child in many ways - each and every decision feels like it is of monumental importance, and even the smallest detail feels as though it deserves our thought, love, and care. Even though we didn’t see in the beginning what Kitten and the Bear was going to become (there were so many ideas that never came to fruition, and so many evolutions that we never could have predicted) we always wanted it to be genuine, truthful, honest, and beautiful. We’ve never made any choices based on money, filling a hole in the marketplace, positioning a product for mass appeal, or growth past what feels comfortable for the brand. The project is based on something that we truly love to do, and at every fork in the road we tried to make decisions that would afford us an authentic life and allow us to be creative.
What was it like in the beginning, when you were making jams at night, like a covert operation?
As anyone who has worked the night shift knows, it’s pretty terrible! But, we were feeling so fueled and pumped up at that point...we were just so happy that people were interested, and we felt we were making responsible decisions and doing the best we could for the future of the business. We had to pack all of our equipment in the trunk of our Prius - copper pans, empty cases of jars, lids, fruit, sugar, lemons, etc - unload, make jam all night, then drive home with hot, liquid-y jam in the trunk of the car. To make it all more dramatic, it’s best to allow jam to rest without being moved at all for 24 hours during cool down to allow the jam to “set” to the proper texture. So, there we are in the wee morning hours, driving at 10 miles an hour all the way home as to not disturb the jam!
That being said, we literally started with 10 jars of jam, from that profit made 20, from there made 50, and so on….so to be honest, at that point we didn’t really think of it all as a struggle. It was all just so exciting that after all of the planning we were actually running our own business.
I always find mornings to be sacred. Can you tell us about your morning ritual?
The mornings are my favourite time of day - there is always that cozy, fresh, optimistic feeling in the air. Typically Bobby gets up first, since he’s really good at hearing the alarm and getting up. (I tend to hit the snooze too many times!) I snuggle with our two cats, catch up on social media and glance over emails while he’s in the shower, and then we switch. We live right across the street from our shop, so Bobby heads over, turns on the ovens, switches on the hot water tower, and starts to get things up and running for the day. When I get there, we make some tea for me and coffee for him, and go over our kitchen schedule and goals for the day. What we have learned from a few years of spending our mornings together is that it truly is the most optimistic time of day and doing the majority of our planning during this time has taught us not only to dream big, but also learn how much is accomplishable in one day.
It seems like you have cultivated a good balance between taking chances and taking consideration and doing your research before jumping in, both of which are essential for business. Where does this wisdom come from and how much is it attributed to your stellar relationship/business partner?
Thank you very much for saying that. It is one of the hardest challenges with a passion project such as Kitten and the Bear to run that line line between making the brand personal and genuine, but also knowing that in the end, everything we do is to make sure the customer has the best experience possible with our brand. A good part of this is directly related to the difference in our personalities. I tend to think really wide - having big, sweeping ideas and bursts of creativity. Bobby, on the other hand, is methodical and logical. One of the things that I value most about him is his incredible eye for detail and exceptional taste level. He has a way of taking my brain bursts and refining them, and figuring out the most elegant way to incorporate them into reality. Though KATB is in so many ways a reflection of my personal aesthetic and taste, he’s really the one that can be credited with defining the KATB aesthetic and keeping the brand so sharply focused.
What is your love story? I really believe two souls find each other to create something greater together, do you think that resonates with your story?
Bobby and I are partners in every sense of the word. Just like we were talking about earlier - that Kitten and the Bear has an effortless, natural feel - it is really an extension of our relationship and a project that we could only have created together. We met by complete chance and circumstance (in other words, he bumped into me in a crowded bar), and since our first date a path has seemed to roll out ahead of us.
My father has a degenerative dementia, and about a year after Bobby and I met, his condition deteriorated to a point where I felt it was important for me to return home to New Jersey. Though it was still early in our relationship, Bobby seemed to barely think twice about the decision to move with me to the US. It was during this special time with my family that we started KATB, as I was cooking at a local restaurant, Bobby was freelancing in photography and design, and nothing was feeling fulfilling. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start a project that would allow us to work together, from home, on something creative, and with reasonable flexibility. From there, it grew, and the time came where things were in transition with my family, and we felt comfortable moving back to Toronto.
We took an R&D trip up here to Toronto, to make sure that the business would fit in the current culinary landscape. We stayed at an AirBnB in Parkdale, ate, drank, and saw every commercial space that would fit our needs. Little did we know that the tiny shop that is now Kitten and the Bear was actually right across the street from that apartment! During that week, Bobby proposed to me in that rented apartment, so it was a very special trip. Low and behold, we ended up finding this shop through industry friends, solidifying the lease, and who walks in within our first month of opening? The tenant that had hosted us in the AirBnB, saying that she is moving out and, having our business across the street and having gotten engaged while we were staying there, it just seemed to her like we were supposed to have that apartment.
It was one of those moments where you feel like the stars aligned, that you're on the right path in life, like you’re making the right decisions, and that without each other we wouldn't be in that place, at that time.
I live in Parkdale, which is also where you chose to open Kitten and the Bear, and love the weirdness about it (keep Parkdale weird!). How does that vibe fit with your shop?
You know, when we were set to open, one of our biggest fears was that we were not going to be accepted into this community. Parkdale is extremely tight knit, and also very eclectic, and we were nervous that there is so much that this neighborhood needs in terms of amenities, that a fancy jam store would be a tough sell. When we opened the doors however, we found exactly the opposite. People were so friendly, welcoming, and excited about the concept from day one! I like to think that it was the homegrown, authentic feel that made the difference. In reality, having a jam store is pretty weird in the first place...try telling someone you’re a jam maker for a living...they usually don’t even know what to make of it!
We got a holiday card from one of our regular customers this year that said “Thank you for keeping the neighborhood classy.” I found myself sincerely moved by the sentiment, and so touched by the recognition that our weird little jam store not only fits in here, but belongs here in this weird little neighborhood serving this weird little community.
There is so much thoughtfulness and creativity in your jam recipes. Where do you find inspiration for a new flavour, or collection of flavours? What is your most inventive recipe for this season?
Most of our flavours are developed by looking at the seasonality of the ingredients, and matching the fruit or blend of fruits to the ambiance of the season. Bobby visits the market weekly, and picks up basically whatever is looking and tasting beautiful at that moment in time. We are so lucky to have our own retail space and work with small, independent boutiques, because without the need to maintain consistent SKUs, we can keep the creativity flowing, come up with new and better recipes and flavour profiles, and never compromise on the quality of fruit.
Once Bobby comes back to the kitchen with the produce for the weeks production, we curate the flavours that would be best suited to each fruit. We try to always keep a well rounded collection of flavours that would appeal to a wider, more traditional audience, as well as a handful that are a little more avant garde and unique for a more foodie audience (and our own creative curiosity.) During the wintertime, we focus more on spice blends, boozy notes, tea infusions, rich, warm flavours, and winter-y herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and types of pine. In the summer, our flavours tend to be much brighter and full of sunshine, for example, fresh florals, fresh herbs such as mint, basil & lemon verbena, and many more pure fruit blends to take advantage of the beautiful Ontario summer bounty, such as berry blends, stone fruit, cherries, and unique varieties of plums.
One of my favourite new flavours that we made this winter for the first time is Strawberries & Chocolate. Everyone always loves a well balanced, classic strawberry jam, but during the winter months, strawberries just don’t taste the same. A splash of creme de cacao (a chocolate infused liqueur) winterizes this crowd pleasing classic by lending a festive, dessert-like chocolate nuance. It tastes exactly like chocolate dipped strawberries and is like a warm, comforting, familiar blanket on this chilly days!
Community is so integral to a small business and fosters collaboration. What would your dream collaboration be?
We have been so fortunate to work with so many amazing people since starting this business, and each and every collab has truly been an honour. Coming from the restaurant and culinary world, I have been dreaming of working with more of the city’s amazing chefs, bartenders, makers and artisans to collaborate on fun new jam-centric recipes, cocktail creations, and other DIY kitchen projects. This year, we are actually launching a KATB blog exactly for this reason! We don’t want to give away too many secrets, but we have some super exciting guest contributors lined up for the near future!
Your favourite season?
Winter! I love cold weather, snowfall, and the sense of peace and quiet that comes with the season. Just give me an excuse to stay home in a cozy sweater and socks, leave me with my knitting, colouring books, and a box of shortbread and I’ll see you in May :)
A past life?
A koala bear. Bobby always says I look like one since I’m small, round, and pretty zenned out most of the time.
Your favourite scent?
Fresh laundry...especially crisp white bed sheets and fluffy towels. It makes me feel like I have my shit together.
Your shop has a magical essence to it. What does magic mean to you? To me, magic is that feeling when you’re going about your day and something moves, changes, or influences the way you feel - a ray of sunshine, a spoonful of jam, steam rising from that perfect cup of tea - all of a sudden, the world just looks a little brighter, shinier, more beautiful and poetic. We like to think of our shop a little oasis, so that when you walk through the door you can exist in the moment, leave the rest of the world outside, and lend a little magical sparkle to your day.
Ana is an actress and writer and host of the blog series Girl Crush. She loves hanging with her friends, finding the best vintage pieces and travelling to every small town. You can follow her musings over on her blog and instagram.