YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Chefs shed their whites and start a revolution

Whether seeking star status or just personal expression, many are abandoning the venerable uniform for Euro-fashion or punk style.

August 13, 2003|Valli Herman-cohen | Times Staff Writer

Bill Bracken, the executive chef of the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel's elegant Belvedere restaurant, made management bristle last year when he slipped out of his stiff, starchy chef's jacket and into a look that nearly started a minor rebellion. The offending garment? An asymmetrical, three-quarter-length sleeve model in that staple of genteel Southern suits -- seersucker.

"The same creativity that you see on the plate goes into our clothes," said Bracken, who also wears an earring and a goatee and shaves his head.

As a young generation of chefs climbs into the top ranks of top kitchens, they're putting a hip, anti-establishment twist on the uniform of haute cuisine.

"Chefs can bend the rules now," said Octavio Becerra, the mohawk-wearing corporate executive chef of the Patina Group. "It's part of the social norm. "

For these cooks, it's out with the chef's whites -- the white double-breasted jacket, dark pants and tall chef's hat, or toque -- a uniform that for more than 100 years has symbolized the extensive training required to run a professional kitchen. Instead, many of today's stylish chefs are adopting looks that range from retro-punk to Euro-fabulous, from kimono-ish black cotton jackets to Italian custom-tailored stripes. There's also a democratic contingent -- call it dishwasher chic -- that prefers the snap-front shirts worn by the lowest rung in the kitchen.

Bijan Shokatfard, the 32-year-old executive sous chef at Geoffrey's in Malibu, has adopted as his everyday attire a black, Asian-style, short-sleeved server's jacket with silk-knot buttons and a mandarin collar. Embroidered in red across his chest is his nickname and favorite band, Slayer (it's even tattooed inside his lip and across his stomach). A highly developed sense of punk utility governs the rest of his look: Doc Martens boots; double-knee, black Dickies with a cellphone pocket; a pierced tongue and a lip labret. It's a look more common to his first profession -- a bass player in the punk band Tattooed White Alcoholic Trash.

His boss, Shawn Davis, executive chef of Geoffrey's and Union in Santa Monica, wasn't put off by his appearance, but he did draw the line at Shokatfard's "horns," the tall, devil-red spikes of hair he used to wear.

After all, as Davis patrols Union's tight kitchen's ovens, broilers and 28 blazing burners, he's likely to be clad in Sean Jean cargo pants and T-shirts and listening to rapper 50 Cent blasting on the kitchen's speakers. Though Davis keeps a black chef's jacket handy for tours of the dining room, backstage, he's the boss -- and he shows it by making everyone else wear the white linen.

David Fouts, executive chef at Jimmy's Tavern in Los Angeles, has a tailor in Florence, Italy, make his pinstriped pants and chef's jackets from a lightweight cotton fabric often reserved for dress shirts.

Though he's practically GQ now, from the ankles down, Fouts, 38, is a radical. He got a tattoo artist to paint three pairs of clogs with golden wings, shamrocks and hot-rod flames. That's pretty tame for the guy who once cooked in a kilt at the avant-garde Lumpy Gravy -- until the health department cracked down. Before that, he tie-dyed the chef's jackets he wore for a cooking job in Malibu.

"But I stopped," he said. "I'd keep getting pulled over by the CHP in Malibu when I'd drive to work at 6 in the morning."

Shokatfard's appearance once inspired fearful stares, but now it's a popular attraction. Many other young chefs say their futures depend not just on great culinary skills, but whether they can build an image, or even better, star status.

"The perception of the chef has changed through the years," said Andrew Pastore, executive chef at Hollywood's White Lotus. "We're more in the spotlight, and people want to meet us. To wear what everyone else is wearing is generic and boring. I'd rather not look like every other chef."

He certainly doesn't. Arms covered with tattoos, ears pierced and head shaved, Pastore, 31, said his look fulfills the expectations of customers. "It's Hollywood," he said. "People come here and they want a Hollywood experience."

Steeped in culinary tradition

The old traditional uniform has a long and curious history. Although there is some debate among food historians, many believe that it dates back to the 16th century, when artisans, including chefs, hid in the monasteries to escape persecution. To blend in, they wore the same long garments and tall hats as the priests, though in gray rather than black.

In the early 19th century, Antonin Careme, the genius of haute cuisine, introduced the notion that white uniforms would reinforce the idea of kitchen cleanliness. He dressed his staff in double-breasted white jackets, and chef's whites became the standard in French professional kitchens.

Though the rebels make their names by tweaking tradition, in restaurant kitchens, that's a prerogative reserved for the boss. Many chefs require traditional uniforms be worn by their staffs.

Los Angeles Times Articles