Column: Foods

by Sophia Lorenzi


Photographer: Aubrie Pick, courtesy of Craftsman and Wolves.

Column: Foods

The Chef, The Denim, His Stains, and Her Lover

Long before fennel pollen and squid ink were smeared across plates in restaurants nationwide, there was melty American cheese oozing out of burgers on plain sesame buns, brought to tables by servers likely wearing unappetizing grease-and-coffee-stained aprons. There was the blue-collar customer sitting at the counter, drinking his charred coffee, likely in his 501s and work boots, anticipating the day’s beginning or end.

In the same way that the diner is an honest microcosm of working men and women, so too is the iconic fabric denim. However, while both were born out of utility, neither is still relegated to just the working class.

Dining in the states today involves not only the obvious purposefulness of eating a meal, but also an aesthetic experience; as well, it has become a veritable combination of fashion and sensibility. In tandem, denim has found its way into the lauded culinary realm via décor and staff wardrobe of several noteworthy U.S. restaurants. Tattered, greasy aprons are but a faded memory, and now it’s the wait staff, the chef, and the diner who are wearing denim.

Denim and cooking have experienced similar histories, progressing from blue-collar to full-blown celebrity. Chef Dale Talde, Top Chef contestant and chef/owner of TALDE in Brooklyn, speaks to both aspects of his vocation in regard to his custom-made, pinstriped denim apron from Kill Devil Hill in Greenpoint. “An apron is something that defines our trade. And a chef’s apron is a unique tool, almost like his knives,” he says. Though his denim apron sports utilitarian advantages, he admits, “I’m a blue collar dude, but I still like looking fly.”

The fashionable yet durable characteristics of denim are not lost on Thad Vogler, owner of Bar Agricole in San Francisco. A contemporary designer’s paradise, Bar Agricole’s aesthetic fastidiously begins with its use of high-quality raw materials. Recycled and naturally dyed denim emerge organically as an extension.

“A restaurant is a collection of surfaces,” Vogler says, and notes that even the napkin, one of the more touched surfaces, is a point of interest. In response to the lint-plagued disappointments we are familiar with, Vogler and designer Matt Dick of Small Trade Company collaborated on denim napkins, repurposing recycled scraps of apparel denim.

The transient quality of denim is also appealing to Chef William Werner of San Francisco’s pâtisserie, Craftsman and Wolves. Werner is collaborating with Self Edge denim shop owner Kiya Babzani to design heavy-gauge, Japanese denim aprons, made on pre-60s union special Singer sewing machines, for both his kitchen and café staff. While Werner appreciates denim for its capacity to wear-and-tear, he relishes in the juxtaposition of the shop’s cool feel to the denim apron’s organic aging qualities.

Werner and Babzani first aligned in their calling for fine materials, in both the edible and inedible realms, after discussing their mutually extensive stays in Tokyo. Babzani almost exclusively sells Japanese denim at his San Francisco shop, contending that the Japanese way involves never settling for mediocrity. Consideration of the classics is equally important.

“We’re both doing the same thing in our respective industries,” says Babzani. “We’re both heavily influenced by traditional methods, and we are progressing our craft without turning it into a theatrical release.”

For Los Angeles restaurant Hinoki & the Bird, Chef David Myers worked with interior designer Milo Garcia of studio MAI to cultivate a denim-clad space. “We wanted people to feel that sexy yet comfortable emotion in the restaurant that you get with denim. It’s romantic,” says Myers, a self-proclaimed Levi’s guy. Myers asserts that the comfortable “day-off” spirit of denim lends itself to the plate at Hinoki. “The food is simple, and we let the ingredients really show for themselves. Trends in food are short-term thinking.”

Garcia says that the classic integrity of denim is what qualifies it as simultaneously rustic, elegant, and minimal. “Denim is elegant in the sense that the stitching is exposed in a tasteful way,” says Garcia, who applied four different kinds of stitching to the denim banquette booths in the restaurant.

Woven with contradictions and oscillating between the sensible and the beautiful (on rare occasions, both), denim’s relatively short lifetime still succeeds as an authentic expression of contemporary society. “The more you try to hide things, the more people sense it’s not honest anymore,” says Garcia. “And with denim, there is something about exposing how things are made that is simply honest.”