lT'S ALL lN THE PANTS
Last night at dinner l approached the table of some guests (friends of mine as it turned out) to ask them, as is typical for me, how everything was. Fortunately, the food was good and they were happy, but then my friend John pointed to my chalk-striped black chef shorts and said, laughing, "And do those shorts make the food taste better?"
l was caught a bit by surprise, something that happens to me much more often in places other than my own dining room, but recovered quickly enough to show him the "Chefwear" logo that appears on the right front pocket of these and any other pants made by Chefwear. This is hardly a plug for Chefwear, or Kitchen Collection, or even Birkenstock, for that matter, all of whose products l wear to cook in, but more an expression of wonderment that people are amused that those of us in my industry have our own work clothes.
We laughed about it at John's table and then he pointed to the fork logo on the brand tag of my shirt and we laughed again. l made a joke about how unprofessional it would appear for me to be cooking in my own clothes, or perhaps, board shorts and a raggedy T-shirt, and how that might create somewhat of a mistrust of the seriousness of my mission; we all shared a chuckle and they went back to eating.
A couple of days before that, my girlfriend, upon seeing another pair of striped chef's shorts, had remarked that l looked like l should be refereeing a soccer match. And just a day or two before that l had been in a meeting when the person next to me, seeing the Chefwear logo on my shorts had burst into laughter and then said, "Oh, how cute, Chefwear, did someone make those for you?" l wandered back into my kitchen, after answering John, but the question plagued my mind as to why it would seem so odd and/or humorous to people that we kitchen workers would have clothing specific to our industry.
Forty years ago, when l first got serious about cooking, one was asked one's jacket size and pants size upon taking a new job. This was because restaurants used to supply their cooks with the work clothes of the trade. A linen company would deliver, along with the tablecloths and napkins, racks of cook's clothing, on hangers, and separated by size; checked pants and white starched double breasted jackets. A lot of them even stenciled your name on the sizing label on the outside of the pants pocket. Yes, really.
Was l ever grateful to find that out. Previously l had worked for steak houses that gave you a logo shirt and you wore your own pants. And by the end of the shift your favorite or even less than favorite Levis were coated with a layer of grease, and by the end of two or three days they were no longer your favorite Levis. Now, in my new attire, no matter how greasy l got, at the end of my shift l could drop my dirty clothes into a linen hamper and forget about them. Yes, l still had to slide my greasy smelly body into my own clothes for the remainder of my day, but at least l hadn't worked in them. l wore shorts home a lot and some of the cooks would simply wear the next shift's pants home and back in the next day.
Naturally their were glitches; days when l wore someone else's chef's coat, snatched furtively from a hanger, and days when l wore pants that were either impossible to bend over in, or were cuffed three times at my ankles. But still, the "mud and the blood and the beer" as we used to say, were absorbed by someone else's clothes. And l liked that a lot.
Somewhere along the line, probably as early as the late 70's, but to the public's perception, more like the early to mid-80's, restaurants began to change. People's ideas about restaurants and food began to change as well. And accordingly the people working in restaurants began to change. For one thing, someone who pursued a career in the food industry was no longer consider a pariah, or a certified loser, as had been the case in my early days.
The older men l'd worked with, the ones with military kitchen and country club backgrounds; the ones who'd looked at me in derision at my lack of experience, were now gone; retired, moved along to the next place or dead. The restaurant "lifers", among whom l now considered myself, were disappearing. Dinosaurs, my few remaining cohorts and l called ourselves.
A newer type of cook was emerging. For some reason working in a restaurant became "hip" and leaving one's graduate studies to become a cook/chef was not at all unheard of. And these new cooks didn't take at all to the old style industrial looking cook's clothes. l started seeing a whole lot of my new kitchen mates coming to work in and then working in their jeans.
And much to my dismay, once restaurants saw this, they began, in a cost cutting effort, to stop supplying their cooks with the black and white houndstooth checks of my youth. They couldn't get away with discontinuing the jackets, as the starched white look was too classic, but the pants were fast disappearing. And in their place were the jeans and cords that the cooks would come to work in (it was a good thing more than a few pair of cooks checks had made it home with me).
But something new was happening and l'll have my hand shoved in a hot french fryer if l can remember when it began, but suddenly baggy chef's pants with elastic waistbands began showing up in kitchens. lt seems that a woman named Rochelle Huppin (of course, it had to be a woman) had not liked the old stodgy and starchy uniform she'd been issued at the Culinary lnstitute of America (and damn, they even had cooking Academys now) and had designed and sewn her own pants.
As if overnight, Rochelle's pants (so to speak) were in every kitchen in America that mattered. They were comfortable, they were cool, in more ways that one and they pushed the envelope of design and color. Yes, the came in the same old houndstooth, but NOBODY wore those. They also came in solids, wild and colorful patterns with food themes, and they came in stripes. Every kitchen had two, three, four cooks sporting different and wildly colorful pants.
America had a new industry. Sales of cookware, expensive knives and cookbooks soared. Chefwear spawned a wide array of imitators, some good, some bad, but as near as l can tell, most still in business. Chef's were on TV wearing logo wear. Housewives could suddenly quote Bobby Flay recipes and had monogrammed chef's jackets hanging in their kitchens next to their All Clad pan sets.
So this is in part why Chef Dave is in the jungle wearing striped Chef Wear kitchen shorts. Consider them the Carhardt or Ben Davis of my profession and please remember, best of all, l don't have to cook in my street clothes.