Being a girl chef in the eighties (see picture in blog header) meant you spent at least 60 hours of your week in men’s clothing. Hound’s-tooth-checked pants with the cuffs rolled up and dragging on top of your sneakers. The cardboard-starched, size 34 or 36 (if the linen company had those smaller sizes) white coat whose shoulders dragged to your elbows and whose hem fell well below your hips. And of course the hat ––toque––usually made of paper, a tall tube to twirl your hair into and smash onto your head to capture the forehead sweat.
Ready for action!
Androgynous as hell.
Big boobs couldn’t even hold that big coat onto your person; don’t put your keys or thermometer into the front pocket because they’ll fall into the bucket of clam chowder you are stirring.
Of course there could be a day off to play fashion horse. Make up? Painted nails? Flamboyant blue eighties outfit with matching eye shadow? Nah, why bother? Just throw on some jeans and a t-shirt because you are that persona now. Just soak your fingers in lemon juice before going out so you don’t smell like fish.
And this was the thing of my nightmares: that I would one day awaken at fifty and still be wearing men’s clothes. I mean, why even have all that hair?
One day that all changed.
I had a day off from managing my hundred or so staff at four restaurants at Expo ’88 in Brisbane, Australia and decided to head to the coast in my boss’ car. Who knows what town I’d landed in, Caloundra perhaps and, walking down the little street lined by beachy gift shops and cafes, I happened upon an odd thing. A little clothing store which featured a line of uniforms called Chef Revival. Only they weren’t your standard uniforms.
I was revived!The choices were astounding! They had an actual size SMALL. I didn’t need to roll up the pant cuffs! Most importantly, the fit was nearly tailored with wrap-around pants that tied in the front. Look ma, I have a waist! I left, one hundred dollars poorer, carrying my booty and actually looking forward to work the next day. Very revived.
The coat was white with little black buttons and black trim and a smart looking black-and-white logo on the sleeve. I’d bought two-wrap around pants, one white and one black. I skipped the checkerboard pants, feeling they were too wild. My boss, Chuck Sanders –– a traditional old guy ––pooh-poohed my purchase, feeling as though his chef should be traditional. Except, I wasn’t. I was a 27 year old girl in charge of all the guys. (I’ll wear whatever the fuck I want…)
Back in the US after a year in Oz, I schemed and dreamed about bringing those chef’s fashions to America. So did some of my compatriots who were from Canada. I even went to a seamstress to get the cost on replicating the styles. But then I got caught up in work, life, work, motherhood, more work. My snazzy uniforms eventually wore out. I was back in the men’s cardboard coats again. Sniff! In 1994 I quit being a chef and focused on a real wardrobe.
Imagine my surprise when, as a kitchen designer, I went to a restaurant show in the nineties and saw an entire line of printed wrap-around chef’s pants featuring hot peppers, knives, hats, all manner of silly stuff, and many styles of coats, in all sizes and colors. Chuck Sanders would’ve hated it!
I was excited and sad at the same time. I wished I’d been the chef’s clothing pioneer and could become independently wealthy. Since I was still freshly re-entered into the real world, I missed the kitchen –– the camaraderie, the rebellion, the swearing, the flame-jousting, the food. I pictured myself in those pepper pants, wrapped around my figure eight. With all these new chef wardrobe choices, would my cooking career had been different? Image is everything, right? I walked past the display with my new boss, my head swiveling to take it all in. Imagining all those new girl-chefs of the nineties and the outfits they could wear, 60 hours a week.