It's a bountiful life: Apron couture
Nov./Dec. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Megan Alpers
Photo by Lori Fusaro
Former model brings fashion to food service.
As a line cook at Providence, an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles, former model Ellen Bennett noticed a huge disparity between the beautiful food they created and the ugly aprons worn by the kitchen staff. So she started making designer aprons for chefs who were friends of hers, using durable, high-quality fabrics, such as canvas and denim. They were a huge hit and her apron-making business, Hedley & Bennett, was born.
Do you have one favorite apron or do you switch between many aprons? If I make a new style of apron, I like to wear it to test it out, but I think my favorite apron is called "Kumamoto," like the oyster. It's reversible Japanese denim. It was the first cool apron I made for my chef at Providence.
What is the most unexpected use for your aprons?
I'm working closely with a barber-products company on an apron that is made out of waxed canvas so that the hair slides off and doesn't stick. ...That's somebody I never thought of when I started doing this: barbers and potters. A lot of potters have my aprons, and that's so cool because they get covered in clay and the apron looks even more rustic.
What do you want everyone to know about your success?
With some serious hard work, you can definitely make things happen with no money. I started this with no money, in my living room last summer. Now we've sold aprons to customers in England, Australia, France. We are in New York. We're in Miami. We did this in one year with no resources beyond just having a lot of drive. It is totally doable to make an idea become a reality.
Who makes up the Hedley & Bennett team?
One of my team members is my best friend. Another is someone who had heard of me and said, "I really like making aprons. I want to help you," and now she is my right-hand girl. I've been really lucky to have people come on board and assist me. Now we have nine employees.
Who are some of your high-profile clients?
Alton Brown of the Food Network; Jeremy Fox, former chef of Ubuntu in Napa and now executive chef at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica; Josiah Citrin, chef and co-owner of Mélisse, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Santa Monica; and Paul Kahan, an executive chef at a ton of unbelievable restaurants in Chicago.
Your experience with aprons comes from your own career in the kitchen, which started by attending culinary school in Mexico City. Why did you decide to go to culinary school there, as opposed to a place like Paris, New York City or Napa?
I am half-Mexican, half-English, which is where Bennett comes from…. I basically went to Mexico because I wanted to live there and I loved that side of my culture. I grew up drinking tea at my grandparents' house, and then I would go to Mexico and run around half-naked playing soccer with little kids on the street, eating beans and rice. I grew up with a very open view of life, and I wasn't afraid to work hard and get dirty.
How does the time you spent in Mexico influence your apron designs?
It influenced me pretty significantly. While I was going to cooking school, I was a model and everything was so glamorous and beautiful. I was always exposed to really nice designs and everything was very carefully curated, so when I became a line cook, standing all day in clogs and crocs, it wasn't exactly glamour galore…. The uniform totally makes you feel the part. If you go running, you want to have a cute outfit on. It will make you feel better about running. If you go out there with a bag on your head, you don't look and feel very great. So I compared that to the aprons.
What is the most memorable apron you've created?
I think the most memorable apron was for a restaurant called Feed Body & Soul in Venice. It was probably the biggest client I had ever had at that time. They basically had me do a custom apron from the ground up for them with denim from Japan and custom-made labels. We custom-made everything and it really was a challenge. We were dealing with real professionals and it was no longer a hobby or a little business. It was a real business. I would meet with 15 people at once and give presentations about "What if we do this and change that?" and it made me step up my game and make this business a real one. From that point forward, we legitimized who we were. We weren't two little girls at my house trying to figure out what we were doing; we were a real business with an office and bookkeepers.
As a chef, do you have a favorite California-grown ingredient?
I love finger limes and different types of radishes, like watermelon radish. I really like to make corn, asparagus and watermelon radish salad. And peaches. Oh, my goodness! I love peaches—the kind that drip all over.
Hedley & Bennett aprons are available online at www.hedleyandbennett.com, as well as in Heath Ceramics and Steven Alan stores.