Growing up in Spokane, Washington, Rochelle Huppin had her teen-aged heart set on moving to Paris to study cooking. Her plans changed at the age of 17 when her parents suggested she attend a university in the United States first and then go to a culinary school afterwards. During her senior year at UCLA, working part-time, Rochelle tended the herb garden and spent time in the kitchen at the Hotel Bel Air, this re-ignited her passions to pursue a culinary career. After graduating Rochelle went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
In 1987, upon graduation from the CIA, Rochelle landed an exciting job as a pastry assistant with Michel Richard’s newly opened Citrus restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Later she went on to be the opening pastry Chef for Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, California. After sweeping the San Francisco crowd off of their feet with her devil’s food cake and butterscotch pudding, Rochelle moved back to Los Angeles to work for Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff at Spago, Chinois on Main, Eureka and Granita. In total, Rochelle helped open nearly a dozen restaurants in her pastry career.
Rochelle received great accolades during her career as a Pastry Chef. Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle said that she belonged in the “Dessert Masters Hall of Fame.” Janice Wald Henderson wrote in Chocolatier Magazine that Rochelle “…pursues powerful flavors with the enthusiasm of a pirate on a treasure hunt.”
Chefwear began simply as a personal necessity for CIA trained Chef Rochelle Huppin and quickly revolutionized the way chefs dress. Rochelle first experienced the then standard black and white checked polyester culinary uniforms when she started her cooking career. The stiff, uncomfortable and unattractive pants prompted her to design and sew her own uniform 100% cotton fabric. The story goes…
“She was a kid from LA who had just graduated from UCLA with a minor in women’s studies and had just arrived at the CIA. They handed her a stiff polyester uniform. At the time there were very few female students and the S, M, L sizes reflected this. The pants were cut for men, had no elastic in the waist, and were a horrible fit. So she bought some all-cotton hounds-tooth print material and had a friend in California sew a pair of pants for her—and she got a doctor’s note saying she had any allergy to polyester.”
She had all-cotton chef clothes made for herself. Several years after graduating from the CIA, Rochelle went on to develop Chefwear, Inc., a company with a full-line of contemporary and traditional chef clothing. Chefwear, Inc. has offices in Chicago is owned by Rochelle Huppin and her partner Gary Fleck.
Some of the original prints that Chefwear developed for chefs were Jonathan Waxman’s red and white hounds-tooth pants for Table 29. Then, for David Burke the green and white hounds-tooth pants to compliment the colors at the Park Ave Cafe. Of course we couldn’t make 500 pairs of red and a white or green and white hounds-tooth and only sell it to the two chefs, so we made them available to other customers. Mark Miller’s chili poster was the inspiration and guide for our authentic chili inspired pattern. Then the mushrooms, utensils, and others followed. Fashion in the 80s was big on baggy pants and crazy patterns, so ideas came and sold easily.
Rochelle believes that uniforms have always been important to our profession because they were born out of practicality. The double-breasted front panel allowed a chef to enter the dining room or service looking presentable. The hounds-tooth pattern acted as a camouflage. Today, the growing number of open kitchens brings even more attention to the chef uniform. Customers want to see the chef and it is even more important that they look professional.
Chefwear has raised a certain consciousness about the comfort of uniforms and the work place. It’s not just big guys on the line anymore; the work place has become extremely diverse. There are so many different body types and personalities. Two years ago Chefwear combined eco-conscious chef apparel with environmental responsibility. We use the same trendsetting, fashion forward thinking practices that first launched the company in 1990 to create new lines of chef apparel each season. In our most recent catalog we are launching an entire new line of clothing dedicated to emergence of the bar chef and mixologists. Look for Barwear by Chefwear.
Chefwear is also very involved in giving programs. Rochelle thinks it is important to understand that there is philanthropy and then there’s charity. We try to find both national and local charities. We also think it is important, since we are a food industry related business to support those programs which support feeding people, chefs and culinary programs. It’s really about wanting to contribute to our industry.
Though uniforms signify a brotherhood, history, and craft, they say nothing about the individual. Like fashion, the world of food represents more than a profession; it represents lifestyles of the time. The relationship between artist and audience is becoming more casual as chefs become an extension of our own kitchen. Good or bad, today’s chef is more than his food. He is a persona, a celebrity, a trend setter. In his comfort, a chef is more apt to challenge conventional wisdom, and replace it with what suits his style. So it was with a young female student who traded coasts to attend culinary school and ended up breathing new life into a uniform that has remained relatively unchanged for the last 200 years.
Founder and President of Chefwear, Rochelle Huppin Fleck reveals the secret to her success has less to do with being business savvy and more to do with being a chef herself. “I think the key is that we are not a purveyor selling to chefs–chefs hate purveyors,” Rochelle offers. “In fact I wasn’t really ‘in business’ when I first started. I was just making pants for myself.” It wasn’t until several years after she started her business that she even considered leaving the kitchen. As her network of chef-friends grew, so did the interest in her ‘au currant’ baggy bloomers. “Chefs are young, creative people, they really welcomed the opportunity to create their own clothes,” Rochelle explains. “The Chefwear catalogue features chefs in customized pants and jackets. Of course there was a great response to the ads,” recalls Rochelle. “There was always a buzz in the kitchens about who and what was going to be in the next catalogue.” But by 1992, the growing business demanded her full-time attention. With the help of her then boyfriend, now partner, Gary, Rochelle devoted all her time to Chefwear and continues to run the business from Los Angeles and Chicago.
Part of her success is also a reflection of the hands-on support she lends to the food industry. Though most of her time is dedicated to the Chefwear line, she occasionally steps into the kitchen for a variety of special events. Chefwear remains loyal to the needs of the industry, both in the kitchen and at the table.
Like so many of her customers, fellow chefs, and friends, Rochelle is an avid supporter of industry organizations, among them: The James Beard Foundation, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, Les Dames d’Escoffier, The American Culinary Federation, ACF and IACP.
“It is with great joy and excitement that Chefwear is celebrating its 20th anniversary, said Rochelle, every anniversary is a cause to celebrate but being appointed to the WCR Board of Directors on this anniversary makes it even more special!”