Marcus Samuelsson, formerly of Aquavit, likes his easy and crisp. David Myers, of Los Angeles’ Comme Ça, prefers his with an edge (“a bite,” as he says). Scott Conant, straight-up Italian. A predilection for certain cuts of beef or flights of wine? Not quite: they’re talking clothes.
With the ever-growing popularity of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and its Food Network counterparts — “Chopped,” “Iron Chef” and dozens of marquee-name cooking shows, à la Bobby Flay and Ina Garten — it’s no surprise that what celebrity chefs wear when they hit the soundstage has become far more chic. But for a number of well-known kitchen masters, fashion’s influence is evident in the threads they don around a stove or in their dining room — not to mention in their restaurant’s design, their business model, and, in some cases, what comes out of certain big-city kitchens.
This story first appeared in the April 29, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
This spring, Laurent Gras, the chef and owner of L20 in Chicago, created an appetizer called “18 flavors of winter,” arranging vegetable components — carrot worked into foam, lettuce and lemon, honeydew and peppermint — on a bright green acrylic slab. The dish offers a striking spectrum of color, from peach to evergreen, and a variety of shapes.
“It’s about contrast, and different materials,” explains Gras. “It’s very fashion.” Gras, who for 15 years has been wearing custom-made chef’s jackets and Prada shoes while cooking (for public appearances, he veers toward Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci suits), admits to being something of a fashion voyeur. “Looking at John Galliano haute couture for Christian Dior is breathtaking,” he wrote on his restaurant’s blog in March 2008. Taking his cues from Galliano’s couture show that winter, which featured an origami-pleated gown in sherbet orange, Gras whipped up a crab salad with honeydew melon and cilantro, with an isomalt layer (a hardened sugar substitute) underneath, meant to emulate the dress’ folds.
Each season, he scours Web sites for collections. “When I look at women’s fashion, I think it is just inspiring, the richness of the fabrics and [the] creations,” Gras explains. “I look at design like food. My food, we make it very clean; it can be very complex, technically exact, but in the end, it is very simple for the guests [to eat].”
Though Gras may be a pioneer in his overt plucking of references from the catwalk for his menus, fashion is infiltrating “chefing,” as Samuelsson calls his line of work, on other levels. These days, there’s no shortage of well-respected cooks looking more like they rolled out of Bergdorf’s than a walk-in freezer. Entertainers, it turns out, aren’t the only ones who cozy up to companies for (frequently gratis) clothes. While the chefs interviewed for this story say they are not paid to wear a particular company’s clothes at their restaurants or at events, there can be a quid pro quo: In some instances, a chef will be offered designer pieces in exchange for catering services.
Such was the case for Greek cooking star Michael Psilakis, who often wears John Varvatos, for whom Psilakis catered an event at the designer’s SoHo store last year. Scott Conant of Scarpetta and Faustina developed a relationship with Ermenegildo Zegna after being introduced to a publicist at the company through his pastry chef; he now frequently dons the label’s suits for restaurant and television appearances. Prada, the go-to label for Gras, has another culinary devotee — Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has long worn the label’s loafers and trousers in his kitchens. Olives chef Todd English reportedly wore Armani suits for events and photo shoots in Boston, where he got his start, after meeting the company’s store manager there, though he does not have a contract to wear any label’s designs exclusively. Of signing one, “I would,” English says, if the right label approached him.
Such fashion focus is not so surprising, given the increasing importance of self-promotion in the ubercompetitive world of cooking; after all, reality television — from “Project Runway” to “Iron Chef” — has sparked a pop culture obsession with the fashion and food industries in the last few years. “To be honest, those worlds aren’t all that far apart,” says Bon Appetit contributing editor Heather John, who has a blog called “The Foodinista.” “Food, wine and fashion are all about taste, whether that’s figurative or literal.”
Their food, and small-screen talents, aside, chefs themselves acknowledge the comforting impact a great suit — or a fashion-influenced decor detail — can have on regular customers. “It’s [just] important to me to look good. I represent myself when I walk outside the confines of the kitchen or outside the confines of a restaurant,” says the Zegna-sporting Conant. “It’s always good to have a reaction,” he adds. “You know people are like, ‘Wow, you dress really well.’ [I believe] the attention that you pay to yourself is also the attention you pay to your food.” (The surroundings, too: For his newest restaurant, Faustina, Conant commissioned mirror frames to look like belts made by Hermès.)
California-based celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has culled from the fashion world an even broader business model. The Spago founder considers his empire to be divided along the lines of Giorgio Armani’s, a friend and “inspiration” to Puck. There is the aforementioned Spago, his “designer” restaurant; Postrio Bar & Grill, one of the diffusion, or secondary, restaurants; and the licensed businesses, his namesake frozen dinners and airport restaurants and kitchen appliances. “I think of my business like a designer thinks of his couture line, and then his sunglasses,” says Puck.
Like several other chefs who profess to be influenced by fashion, Puck has a close proximity to style: his wife, Gelila Assefa, is a handbag designer; meanwhile, Samuelsson, the guest chef for President Obama’s first state dinner in the fall, recently got hitched to model Maya Hailes. He says living with someone so fashion-conscious has impacted his own duds, which range from Acne (Samuelsson grew up in Sweden) to vintage Burberry to Tod’s shoes.
“The cooks in the kitchen are always like, ‘Wow, you have such fancy shoes!’” Samuelsson says with a laugh. For his appearance as a contestant on this season’s “Top Chef Masters,” Samuelsson, who is also creating a line of tableware and accessories for Target, designed his own chef’s jacket, eschewing the traditional white, buttoned number. “I took an old Seventies Levi’s jacket and had a friend tailor it,” Samuelsson says. “Whoever in 1850 decided a chef’s jacket should look like that? I was tired of it.”
And though some chefs view fashion primarily as a marketing tool — see Mario Batali, who has his own brand of signature fiery-orange Crocs sold on the Crocs Web site, alongside a recipe for rigatoni with Tuscan-style cauliflower and pecorino — others look to the industry for a sense of artistic camaraderie.
Myers, the Comme Ça chef and owner who favors Comme des Garçons (but wears jeans and Converse while cooking), recalls bringing a fashion magazine profile of a designer into his kitchen one evening. “This designer was talking about where he got his inspiration for his collection, and it was something with nature,” says Myers. “I said, ‘Guys, this is another incredible way to create, and so you have to think like this.’” In the same way that designers talk about finding a particular color or image as a starting point for a collection — a fire escape, a sunset — Myers encourages his team to think about sources of inspiration for meals. “Sometimes I bring them outside and I’m like, ‘Look at these blues [in the sky]. That is how we’re plating tonight!’” he says. “Some of them get it, some of them don’t. Some of them are like, ‘What the f— is this guy saying?’”
For Samuelsson, the similarities are more literal. “I’ve cooked with Zac Posen, Isaac Mizrahi,” he says, referring to private dinners and television appearances (Posen, he notes, is a very good cook). “We’re operating the same way. To succeed, you need finance, you need speed, you don’t know what the risks are. There’s a kinship. Plus, we have a lot of the same customers.”