There was a time, not long ago, when a chef wore whites without asking, and probably without considering an alternative. This was the proper uniform for a tradesman—one time-honored and practical, designed to convey cleanliness and respect for the craft. He worked in one restaurant and may have been proud behind the stove, but he didn’t seek renown.
You don’t have to look to far to realize the game has changed.
Today, your successful chef runs an empire. He has restaurants in many cities, signs sweet book deals, makes regular television appearances, maybe participates in a Vice collab, and pens the odd essay for McSweeney’s. To find a boldface name chef in the kitchen can be downright surprising. But that’s the world we live in, and if you’re turned off by brand building there are plenty of folks in Red Hook who would never think of opening a raw bar in a W Hotel (at least until they’re presented with an offer they can’t refuse).
Today, the chef’s influence reaches far beyond the kitchen.
Yes, Chef is all-powerful in the restaurant today. Our waiter informs us that “Chef recommends that you eat this dish from left to right.” Maybe Chef doesn’t want you to take pictures of his food. That’s tough love, but you’re in his house. But now, the world is his house, and Chef is giving Ted Talks and cooking a state dinner in Washington. Slowly but surely, the chef has become an arbiter of taste whose influence reaches far beyond the kitchen.
It’s easy to forget where Anthony Bourdain even cooked before he traveled around the world eating every duck testicle he could find. The chef is a leading cultural figure, and he expects to express himself. It was harmless enough when Mario Batali wore orange Crocs, but it didn’t stop there.
As becoming a chef is increasingly seen as a path toward celebrity, the stars of the culinary world are starting to dress the part—and be paid to do it. They appear in ads for J. Crew and Uniqlo. They collaborate with Gant Rugger to create collections inspired by “The Chef” and “The Restaurateur,” which is as dodgy as it sounds. Marcus Samuelsson—perhaps the most visible of the style-section chef brigade—is happy to give an entire interview about his clothing inspirations (“a mix of Swedish and Ethiopian aesthetics with a bit of New York City”). And so here we are, facing the increasingly unpleasant trend of chefs as fashion spokesmen, and, even worse, actual designers of clothes.
But let’s end this unholy food-fashion alliance before it gets too far off the ground. A plaid shirt collaboration for the wait staff—we’re looking at you Fat Radish—is already getting a bit precious. But what is happening when chefs are trying to perfect an ensemble instead of a meal? “Chef’s work shirt in charcoal chambray” is not a phrase you want to read or an idea you wish to contemplate—and it’s certainly not something you intend to wear. Yet here it is, in unisex sizing no less, in case you want to get your girl a present when she graduates from the Culinary Institute.
What is happening when chefs are trying to perfect an ensemble instead of a meal?
The trend toward farm-to-table eating is, of course, a good thing. Read your Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Shop at a greenmarket, embrace your butcher, drink some biodynamic wine. Now, that’s considered a “lifestyle,” updated in real time on food blogs everywhere—and marketers are on the case, searching for that elusive sweet spot where fashion meets food. No matter that fashion was once associated with an aversion to food (salad, hold the dressing), and chefs would never be found in the latest street-style look book.
Do you recall last summer’s Banana Republic x Bon Appétit collaboration? Probably not. It’s just as well, because the Banana Republicans’ sharp idea was a line of clothes to take you from work to dinner. What’s that? You don’t want to be at a restaurant full of men straight from the office in their non-iron chinos? The cluelessness of the concept was compounded by the fact that fewer and fewer restaurants inspire you to actually dress up anyway. Formality is a rare thing—and now that you can slide into your banquette at ’21’ without a tie, it’s getting rarer still.
At a recent meal in a terrific Paris restaurant, it was a wonderful surprise when the chef emerged from the kitchen with an immense slab of beautifully cooked veal. He brought it around to every table. It was stunning, and he was proud. He had grey stubble and a slightly unbuttoned white shirt; he was raffish in the French tradition. This was a man with three Michelin stars, enthusiastically in his element—completely engaged in his craft, and, incidentally, effortlessly stylish. It required no sponsorship, and what his restaurant offers can’t be imitated or taught. You can market a perfect experience all you want. But only a visionary can create one.
David Coggins is a writer, editor, and copywriter. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Esquire, Art in America, Interview, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidrCoggins.