You can prepare a delicious meal using a $10 chef’s knife and a $5 skillet. But you also can spend serious money on those same tools, making that meal with a $3,000 Japanese chef’s knife and a skillet that costs almost $1,000.
And you could even start protecting your favorite cooking sweatpants with a $300 apron. High-end, “professional grade” aprons are a booming industry, with companies like BA Craftmade, Hedley & Bennett, Jones of Boerum Hill and Tilit competing to be the ones who keep you from dribbling marinara down the front of your shirt.
Here’s what these aprons all have in common — a loop around the head or back and an expanse of material to cover the front. Things can get fancy 1) in the materials, which can range from cheap white polyester to supersoft Italian leather with brass buckles; and 2) in the number, size and placement of the pockets, which can range from none to “one big kangaroo pouch in front” to multiple pockets for tweezers, knives and even internal ones to protect cell phones.
Professional chefs cook for hours every day, so little extras such as perfectly placed pockets or cross-hatch loops to reduce neck strain can make their work lives easier. If you bend over pots a thousand times a week, you don’t want your tweezers falling into the stock every time. But what if you’re only making stock once a month or once a year? Do you really need a pricey apron to create a decent, home-cooked meal? We talked to chefs and apron-makers nationwide to find out what they’re wearing, and why — or why not — a fancypants apron might be an aspirational addition for your kitchen.
Do Chefs Even Wear Aprons?
While most chefs we talked to usually wear some kind of clothing protection when they’re at work, it can be a different story when they’re cooking at home. A good example is Megan Scott, who, with her husband, John Becker, is co-editor of the 9th edition of “Joy of Cooking.” “John and I don’t typically wear aprons when we’re cooking at home, unless we’re making something with beets or turmeric, or maybe if I’m frying something,” she told HuffPost.
But things are different when she’s on the clock. “I’m culinary director at Heart Creative, where I do a lot of cooking for photoshoots. There, I wear a Hedley & Bennett chef coat, which I love, because it’s less constricting than an apron and still looks super-professional.”
Scott and Becker are venturing into the apron market themselves: “We’re working on an upcoming apron collaboration with Tilit. While we don’t always wear aprons, we love quality-made kitchen goods.”
Chef Curtis Stone is someone who can’t get enough of aprons. “Tying on that apron allows one to focus and prepare, which always makes for a better cook,” Stone told HuffPost. “An apron is a bit like a shield, and stepping into a professional kitchen at times can be synonymous with walking into battle. A knight has armor and a chef has an apron.”
His restaurant staff wear different aprons, depending on location. “At Gwen and Maude, it’s a blue pinstripe apron, similar to the one I wore when working for Marco Pierre White in London,” he said. Australian uniform company Cargo Crew outfitted staff for his new Dallas restaurant, Georgie.
“Aprons are a bit personal, and different chefs have different needs,” he said. “I tend to fold mine in half and not wear it around my neck, so I feel less restricted. I want an apron to wash well and lack stiffness, so it’s almost like a second skin I don’t realize I’m wearing.”
Stone said he doesn’t have any aprons with sentimental value, but admits that he does tend to hoard them. “I’m always running out of the restaurant, wearing an apron, as I’m heading to a TV shoot, so they tend to pile up in my car. Sometimes someone on my staff will look in the back seat and say, ‘Oh, that’s where they all went.’”
The Apron Brands Charging Top Dollar
Ellen Bennett started Hedley & Bennett in 2012, when she was a 25-year-old line cook. “There was such a hole in the market,” she told HuffPost. “The uniform, which is one touchpoint that the customer actually sees, was the last thing that restaurateurs thought about. But that’s insane when you consider the millions that it costs to set up a restaurant.”
Today, Hedley & Bennett provides culinary workwear to more than 6,000 restaurants and other foodservice locations, as well as home cooks.
For Bennett, buying a more expensive, but better-made, product makes sense: “An apron that’s crafted from the highest-quality, most durable and comfortable materials, like the ones we make, will stand up to the heat of a kitchen and the test of time.”
Her company, she said, can be a confidence builder in a home kitchen. “When you slip into a high-quality apron, you feel like a professional chef, and when you feel like a pro, you’re ready to tackle anything. Once you’re dressed for the role, you’re ready to do incredible things.”
The field has also attracted a number of smaller, niche players. One of those is Kate Meier, a mom whose three sons all work in the restaurant industry. After one of them asked her to make him a comfortable, professional-looking apron to wear at work, she was inundated by requests from his co-workers who saw the apron and wanted her to make versions for them.
BA Craftmade Aprons, the company she established, has grown mostly through word-of-mouth from the chef network. “They tell me that wearing my aprons feels like a hug from a mom,” Meier told HuffPost.
And she’s learned firsthand that chefs really, really care about their aprons. “I met chef Thomas Boemer at a party, and he talked to me about aprons for 45 minutes,” she said.
For home cooks, she said an apron can be the ultimate in foodie fandom. “People follow us on Instagram and see a chef they love wearing a particular style, so they like to have it for themselves.”
Other players in the increasingly crowded field include Jones of Boerum Hill, an apron and workwear company founded in Brooklyn in 2012 by husband-and-wife team lestyn and Deirdra Jones (they’re the ones with the $300 Italian leather apron mentioned earlier) and Tilit, also founded in 2012 by chef Alex McCrery and his wife Jenny Goodman.
First Function, Then Fashion
Chef Hervé Malivert, director of Culinary Arts and Technology at the International Culinary Center, said safety is an important factor in choosing an apron. “For a professional or home cook, your apron needs to be able to protect you from spilling something hot, like water or oil,” he told HuffPost. “It should be easy to wash, heat resistant and somewhat waterproof. My advice is not to spend $80 on an apron that isn’t worth the price. You can spend $19 to $40 with a professional clothing company like Bragard, which is the brand I wear, and still get a great apron.”
For Sandy Davis, chef for New York’s Roxo Events, it’s all about the basics. “I’m perfectly happy with the white aprons that come from the linen supply company, especially because they’re washed by someone else, not me,” he told HuffPost. “Some of these custom-made aprons remind me of woodshop. Are you actually cooking a meal or building a birdhouse for your grandmother?”
Davis likes the crisp, white look, which means that he goes through a lot of aprons in an average day. “This past Friday, I wore six different aprons during a 16-hour day, when I was working three huge catered parties. I guess either I’m obsessive about looking clean or I am one hell of a messy chef.”
For former Top Chef participant and Philadelphia-based chef Eddie Konrad, a good apron must begin with function, but it’s nice when it can include fashion, too. “I prep in the same gear as the rest of the kitchen staff, but when it’s time for service, I switch to one of my own,” he told HuffPost.
His current favorite is an Italian denim with purple deer hide trim from Craftmade, but he said he also owns “at least 10 more” of Kate Meier’s aprons. “Having a well-maintained uniform is a symbol of professionalism and respect to the craft. For me, it’s important that I feel presentable if I go into the dining room to talk with customers.”
Konrad noted that aprons, while decorative, also are workwear: “Most of us spend way more time at work than at home, so it’s nice if an apron can give us the feeling of a comfy sweater,” he said.
He also likes knowing the story behind the brand: “Kate, the BA Craftmade founder, is a mom who’s connected to the industry through her kids. I like supporting her and Project Black & Blue. I even had her make an apron for my three-and-a-half-year-old son.”
So Do You Need A $300 Apron?
The chefs we talked with clearly have strong opinions about the type of apron they like to wear, but they’re also clear that it’s part of their uniform ― what they need to wear to work every day. For a home cook, the $300 apron is pretty much like any other piece of kitchen equipment. You don’t really need more than the basic model, but if you want to treat yourself to something that seems more like one the pros might be using, then feel free. We can’t promise that you’ll be a better cook, but you might be a better-dressed one, and that can be fun, too.