There was a time when clothes did not make the man—or woman—working in a restaurant. Kitchen staff universally wore white, and the waitstaff dressed in black pants and white shirts. The only color to be seen was in the food they prepared and served. But in recent years, color has been creeping into the restaurant wardrobe. “Chocolate-brown chef coats are really in,” reports Christine Mladic, marketing director of Culinary Classics, a Chicago company that makes restaurant uniforms to order. With open kitchens, Mladic continues, “it’s important for the back of the house to look good too.”
The trend in the front of the house is toward more fitted shirts for women and shirts with plackets over the buttons. “There’s a more tailored look,” says Mladic, comparing styles to the past when women servers had to wear smaller versions of men’s shirts, making them appear bunched up and shapeless.
“Retail-driven style trends have left their mark on the changing foodservice ‘look,’” states Zach Ramos, marketing manager for Cintas, a national restaurant-supply company that employs award-winning designers to create foodservice uniforms that utilize the latest in fabric and fashion trends. “In the kitchen,” he adds, “chef wear has moved towards a ‘performance-fabric’ type of garment construction . . . attractive, comfortable, and functional.”
Setting the Tone
In an attempt to achieve a less formal style for his restaurant, Joshua Johnson, food-and-beverage director of The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, which operates the upscale Capitol Grille, has introduced a change in staff uniforms. “We tried to soften the look but maintain a clean, conservative look.” The waitstaff used to wear a white shirt, black vest, gold tie, and long black apron to reflect the colors of the hotel. “Now, they wear a solid black shirt buttoned up to the neck,” says Johnson, adding that bussers wear black overcoats rather than white.
In the Hermitage kitchen, white still rules, but chefs now wear a long royal blue apron. The cleanup crew wears pastel blue short-sleeved shirts with the same colored apron. A separate banquet staff, working on call, is outfitted in traditional tuxedo attire with white shirt and black bow tie. Johnson notes that about three percent of the food-and-beverage budget goes toward uniforms for a staff of about 50 for the restaurant and room service.
Comfort and Class
Chef Revival, a company that makes back-of-the-house uniforms, was created by two Australian chefs who wanted to make life in the kitchen more comfortable. “We taught ourselves to sew,” says Kim de la Villefromoy, co-owner of the business with Tim Grubi. The uniforms worn in their Queensland restaurant more than 25 years ago were “uncomfortable and didn’t look good,” Tim remarks. After designing and sewing a collection for themselves, they took their newly made garments to a trade show and came away with enough orders to start the business in 1986. Now with branches in New Jersey and Canada, Chef Revival outfits kitchen pros all over the world.
Another chef-driven company, Chefwear, began 15 years ago when Pastry Chef Rochelle Huppin Fleck replaced her own uncomfortable off-the-rack uniform with her own creations. Soon, requests from other chefs convinced her to go into the uniform business.
Good looks and comfy styling aren’t the only benefits of current foodservice fashions. Practicality also gets a boost. “New textiles are being introduced now into the uniform marketplace,” claims Jim Zahrt, director of marketing for the Uniform & Textile Service Association, made up of companies that produce, rent, and sell uniforms to restaurants. “They combine the advantages of both all-cotton fabrics and cotton/poly blends,” he reports.
Ramos concurs, “Instead of the typical oxford shirt, many operators are moving towards shirts containing moisture-control fabrics that work to keep employees cool and dry.” The new generation of 100 percent polyester knits are nothing like the uncomfortable polyesters of the 1970s. Spun yarns give a truly cottonlike feel, creating soft garments that allow perspiration to evaporate. The new fabrics have better color retention, durability, and wrinkle resistance, according to Zahrt, and the new Lycra stretch fabrics also have wicking and soil-release properties.
The best-selling fabric at Culinary Classics, according to Mladic, is a soil-release fabric that is 60/40 cotton/polyester. Stains on a chef coat made of this fabric can be removed if treated first with dish detergent, then kept in a bucket of water until machine washed. The best sellers at Chef Revival, de la Villefromoy reports, are poly/cotton blends that wash well, don’t require too much ironing, and have “breathability.” Given the notoriously high temperatures in restaurant kitchens, it may be that the hottest trend in uniform styling is keeping cool. Fortunately, with today’s new threads, that’s no sweat.