Ask most cooks about their attire—some variation on a white chef's coat, baggy pants, comfortable footwear and a "hair restrainer"—and they shrug and say something like, "That's just what we wear" or "That's what I got in cooking school." Why such resignation, even though the coat is, as Piedmont co-owner Andy Magowan says, "the most impractical, stupid garment ever created"? (He wears one anyway.)
As it turns out, there is some practicality to the chef's coat. The double-breasted design allows the cook to cover unsightly splotches by rebuttoning, which the big knotted-fabric buttons allow to be done easily and one-handedly. The coats are two-ply in order to protect against fire. And once upon a time, French cooks were required to wear white pants as well, although a houndstooth pattern—"checks" in the kitchen vernacular—now prevails down below. (No one could explain this either. Why not solids? Stripes? Paisley? Shrug.)
But there is design as well as practicality. Once upon a time, the height of his toque (those old chefs' hats) indicated the cook's rank in the kitchen. Drew Brown, Magowan's partner at Piedmont, noted that the toque is supposed to have 98 pleats in homage to the great Escoffier cookbook, which contains 98 egg recipes. But: 1) That fact couldn't be verified, and 2) No one at Piedmont would be caught dead in a toque. The cooks there wear trucker-style baseball caps designed by their former waitress, Jessye McDowell. The caps are part of McDowell's "wearable art project" (visit www.thickskin.org or Roulette Vintage in Carrboro). She shoots thrifted clothes and hats with a family-heirloom snub-nosed .38. (The Piedmontagnards' caps were each uniquely designed, post-bullet-hole.)
Yet Brown and Magowan don't disparage the chef's costume. "I do kind of like the tradition," Brown admits. "I don't mind wearing the traditional French outfit." And he and Magowan also considered Piedmont's open kitchen before deciding what their cooks should wear. "We look like a team" uniformly dressed, Brown says, so they all don the white chef's coats at night, along with McDowell's caps (regulations are looser at lunch). But cooks at Piedmont aren't required to wear checks, whose parachute bagginess "makes anyone who wears them look like a clown." Besides, Magowan noted, customers can't see Piedmont cooks below the waist. "When it's hot we go pants-less," he smirked. (He was joking, but don't laugh: There are documented instances of bare-bummed chefs in fine kitchens.)
The only thing cooks really seem to care about is their footwear, and boy do they care about it. Brendan Reusing, co-founder of Chapel Hill's Lantern, waxes nostalgic about a pair of great shoes he bought at a cooks' supply store in "downtown Paris" that finally wore out years ago. After trying cheap sneakers, he eventually switched to cook-beloved Birkenstock clogs, which boast steel toes, mountain-worthy treads and excellent ventilation. (Magowan made the switch as well after burning out countless pairs of running shoes.) Most importantly, Birks—and Crocs, another popular chef choice—provide superb, crucial back and arch support, and as a bonus they're adorable. Wearing them, even the most irascible chefs look a bit like a Tyrolean yodeler when they enter the dining room to mingle.
Waiters, on the other hand, pay surprisingly close, even fastidious attention to their generally unvarying clothes. There is a pointed effort to add a human element to an often dehumanizing position.
"I like to wear a tie that's a conversation piece," says Graham Weddington, of Nana's in Durham. "My LSU [Louisiana State University] tie gets a lot of conversations started." (And those conversations encourage guests to trust their waiter.) The bullet-hole designer McDowell chimes in: "I never worked without earrings. People would ask me about them, or other things that stood out about me, because they'd realize I was a person." (And she does allow, "Sometimes I would consciously wear something low-cut" for that extra focus-puller.)
If you're the type that thinks waiters are just hustling you for a big tip, you might be surprised at the genuinely high esteem in which they hold their guests. At Piedmont, for example, waiters are granted more flexibility and less formality in their togs, but many of them dress up anyway. Some wear ties, even though they are not required. Not only does the tie show pride, courtesy and professionalism, "we've got some really style-y dudes here," Magowan says.
Most waiters agree cleanliness is next to godliness on the job, not only in clothes but on the face. "I pretty much always shave right before work," says Nana's Keith Errickson, "sometimes in the bathroom literally 15 minutes before we open. I know the customers can't really see a day's worth of stubble in low lighting, but if I can feel it on me, I feel unprofessional."
Yet as much as waiters want you to be aware that they're unique human beings, they're also playing a role—waiting tables has much in common with performing in a play—and Crystal Morel, of J. Betski's in Raleigh (she has also worked at Magnolia Grill and Enoteca Vin), says her restaurant-issued black vest and gold tie "are like a costume that helps me get into character." (The black and gold match J. Betski's décor.) This sort of awareness goes all the way down to accessories: "All my pens have to match," she insists.
And there is waiter comfort, as well, which is not only about preserving occupational health but also about fitness outside the restaurant. Nana's Keith Errickson, who exercises daily and strenuously, rotates two pairs of shoes. "I don't want my body to conform to the posture of just one pair because I think that's bad for your whole skeleton and muscular system, so I change them up every night. The Danskos are better for my back, and the Birkenstocks are better for my ankles and feet."
Like a lot of writers, I write "waiter" on my 1040 (the two occupations, as it has often been wryly noted, are different only by a single letter). It was a relief to discover, in interviewing fellow waiters, that I am not alone in my occupational habits: my own matching pens (Parker Jotters, to be specific), my sworn-by footwear (Blundstones, from Australia, $140) and my wine tool (Pulltap).
And for the last four years, I have worn the exact same tie to every single shift. It's deep red, and I like to think that it commands attention when I am at the table, so that I can help my guests. And believe me, I want to help you. So do my colleagues. We are attentive professionals who care genuinely about your experience in our restaurant. And we're also human beings. This is how we buy our underwear, feed our children, grow our IRAs, and support our writing. And it's how we take ourselves out to dinner, too. Trust us.
Happy dining out this holiday season, and please tip 20 percent.