Four years ago, pastry chefs Rochelle Huppin-Fleck and Kathleen Magee didn't have a thing to wear in the kitchen. Recent graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, they had both landed jobs at trendy LA restaurants, only to find that the uniforms were sized for men, had no style, and were made of polyester blends that turned a long session in a steamy kitchen into Body Heat without the sex. Their sleeves dragged in the sauces, their pants were too loose in the waist and too tight across the hips. Worst of all, considering the long hours of reaching, bending, and stretching, the uniforms lacked elastic waistbands.
In desperation, the two women bought an all-cotton version of black-and-white houndstooth check, the traditional cloth for chef's trousers. They found someone to sew up seven pairs of stylishly baggy, deep-pocketed pants for themselves and a few friends. Those friends loved the pants and wanted more. Huppin and Magee made up a couple of hundred. On their days off, the two women would drive around to local restaurants, show their merchandise to the chefs, and sell it right out of the trunks of their cars. Chefs change jobs often, so word of mouth traveled fast. Then came a small blurb in the Los Angeles Times and Chefwear took off. Now they are ex-pastry chefs.
Huppin-Fleck's husband, Gary, a foodie with an MBA, supplied the business know-how. By 1992 sales had gone nationwide and the three moved Chefwear to Chicago. Within nine months they'd outgrown their first location on Clybourn and relocated to a 7,500-square-foot space at 833 N. Orleans. Although Fleck won't give sales figures, he says they sell their products all over the world.
Chefwear's catalog features pants, shorts, leggings, shirts, aprons, hats, neckerchiefs, vests, napkins, and Pint-Size Duds, a children's line. Clothes are unisex-sized from XS to XXXL. Along with the original houndstooth, they come in about 20 patterns. Their chili-pepper print is based on Mark Miller's famous poster from his Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. An aqua sea-life pattern was developed for a San Francisco restaurant. There are wild-mushroom, sunflower, bread, and tie-dye motifs, along with chalk-stripe, basic black, and white. Pants run $33; aprons $14; and toques, baseball caps, and berets $16.
Jimmy Bannos of Heaven on Seven, Rick Bayliss of Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, and Zinfandel, Monique King of Soul Kitchen, and Don Yamauchi of Carlos in Highland Park have all posed for Chefwear's catalog. Julia Child wore their pants during a cooking demonstration at Boston University. Huppin-Fleck and Magee's old boss, Wolfgang Puck, is a big customer. Jody Denton of Eccentric, who also worked for Puck, has dressed his entire kitchen staff in Chefwear. He has one of everything. When I spoke to Tony Mantuano of Tuttaposto, he was sporting a pair of Chefwear's tie-dye pants in shades of purple and bluish green.
The clothes aren't just for professional chefs. Amateurs and backyard barbecuers are already into them, and the deep pockets would be perfect for politicians, pickpockets, and the owners of small pets. There's no reason Chefwear couldn't expand into other markets. Their clothes seem perfect for the medical profession--deep pockets for the instruments and tie-dye for hiding pesky emergency-room stains. (To get a copy of the catalog, call 800-568-2433.)
Speaking of stains, I'd hoped that someone at Chefwear would tell me how professional chefs get food stains out. Their catalog recommends that the clothes be turned inside out, washed in cool water, treated with nonchlorine bleach if necessary, then dried on low and removed while damp, and finally laid flat to finish drying. It says nothing about stains, and Fleck was downright evasive on the topic other than mentioning that he uses Tide at home. Under pressure, he admitted that the houndstooth pattern was originally chosen by chefs because it tricks the eye so that it doesn't notice stains. No wonder it's still Chefwear's biggest seller.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.