Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid
A chef wears a protective mask while preparing food at a restaurant in Miami. (Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid

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At renowned Philadelphia restaurant Fork, owner Ellen Yin spent $17,500 in 2019 dry-cleaning the chefs’ jackets and uniforms. This year the chef whites are gone, and so are the cleaning bills.

It’s another way the pandemic has changed the profile of the restaurant business, possibly for the long haul. At Fork, the formality of a well-pressed chef’s jacket became irrelevant when the dining room closed in March. Fine dining gave way to pickup and takeout food, and the menu shifted from $40-plus tiger prawns to $21 chicken pot pies. And chef de cuisine George Madosky transitioned to shirts from chef-wear supplier Tilit, a more practical choice that also reflects the more casual menu.

Now, although Fork has reopened for indoor dining, “Tilit will stay for the foreseeable future,” says Yin.

Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid

At Lark, a Mediterranean restaurant opening this spring in Balla Cynwyd, Penn., chef Nicholas Elmi is outfitting cooks in Dickie’s shirts instead of the pressed jackets he wore at his Philadelphia spot, Laurel. He estimates he’ll save $130 a week in dry-cleaning bills.

Even cooks who value pristine jackets almost as much as their knives are recalibrating. Jonathan Benno has spent close to two decades cooking in an elegant coat, notably at Per Se in New York, and more recently at his eponymous restaurant Benno, in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. The pandemic provoked change.

“We were doing hospital meals, taking the garbage out. I ruined one jacket and said, ‘This is ridiculous,’” says Benno. “The game has changed.” 

Benno said he began buying $40 utilitarian Carhartt shirts. (His father was a carpenter, so he grew up with them.) He estimates each of his Bragard chef jackets cost $150 and cost about $5 to clean. “At Benno, we’d clean 25 to 30 jackets a week,” he says, which added up to about $600 a month.

Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid

The classic white chef coat was first introduced to professional kitchens in the 1820s. A chef in a crisp jacket has long signaled the apex of excellence. For chefs, including Jack Logue of the new Tribeca’s Kitchen in New York, it still does.

“I’ve always viewed proper chef coats as the equivalent to wearing a suit—well maintained, pristine, and pressed,” Logue says. “There is something of a mentality switch when I put on a chef coat; it’s a costume change that kicks in an extra gear of focus.”

As on Wall Street and in office parks, the shift to casual has been years in the making at restaurants, where chefs had slowly adopted more comfortable, utilitarian jackets and sturdy shirts. Even so, many restaurants had those chefs’ duds professionally cleaned. Now, the pandemic has accelerated both the sartorial transition and a move away from paying for professional cleaning.

Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid

When Dana Cree opened Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Chicago in 2018, she decided to ditch the white chefs coats she’d worked in for years, opting for colorful Big Bud Press coveralls. “We were having them professionally laundered but stopped doing so at the beginning of the pandemic, when we cut all costs we could,” says Cree.  Her team has been since laundered them at home. “I’ll gladly pay to have them washed professionally again, when we can,” she says. “Maybe this summer.” 

It’s the latest blow for cleaners. As far back as 2012, 43% of dry cleaners said their sales had decreased more than 5% as a result of the move to more casual dress, based on a survey by American Dry Cleaners. Add the pandemic and forced work from home, and by November 2020 one in six cleaners had closed or gone bankrupt, according to the National Cleaners Association.

Chefs Trade Fancy Jackets for Carhartts to Cut Costs During Covid

New York-based chef Salil Mehta is trying to change the norm of classic chef whites while holding on to tradition. The chef-owner of Singaporean restaurant Laut is planning to spend $2,000 on heather-blue Tilit uniforms for his upcoming Southeast Asian spot. He projects that it will cost $150 a week to get them cleaned.

“We look at the uniforms as a sense of normalcy, where the kitchen is a chef’s fortress of solitude,” he says. “During service, nothing outside that bubble matters.”

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