Interview with Rochelle (from 2001)
Name: Rochelle Huppin Fleck
Home: Pacific Palisades, California
Occupation: Founder and President of Chefwear [TM]
First job: Planting the first herb garden at the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills. In high school I took a class in ‘ornamental horticulture. A few years later a friend, who was working at the hotel recommended me for the job.
Most vivid food and wine memory:
Oh, dozens come to mind. The most vivid is probably the most recent. A few, months. ago I helped a friend who was hosting a private dinner party for Julia Child in their Chicago home. Each course was designed around the ingredients and cooking techniques Julia introduced to the American kitchen. In between each course Julia spoke about the food. For the final course, I made a caramelized apple and fennel tart With caramel sauce and lemon custard ice cream. The most memorable part of the meal was the intimate conversations we were able to have with Julia Child herself. At one point, she and a republican at my table got into a heated political debate. It was great to see such an inspirational person become so animated and involved with the people and issues around her.
Mottoes by which I work: Don’t take shortcuts–whether making chef pants or creme brulee! I think that’s something I learned from my mentors in work and life. When I was working for Wolfgang Puck I had the good fortune to get to know Maida Heatter, and found this motto to be especially true in the kitchen. I remember watching my grandmother when I was a little girl. She used to sort through five pound bags of raisins examining each one for stems. She said it was important to do so because if she didn’t, the person she least wanted to get the piece of strudel with a stem in it would. She was right; you never know who you are selling to, so treat everyone like royalty. In my business, many of my customers are also my friends so of course I don’t want them to get a product that is falling apart or of poor quality.
Q: You are a bit of an urban legend at The Culinary Institute of America. Is it true you had a doctor’s note explaining that due to your polyester allergy you could not wear the dreaded school uniform?
A: Yes, it’s true. You know, it’s funny, I was this kid from LA who just graduated from UCLA with a minor in women’s studies and when I arrived at the CIA, they handed me this stiff polyester uniform. At that 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 I bought some all-cotton hounds-tooth print material and had a friend in California sew a pair of pants for me–and I did get a doctor’s note so I could wear them in school.
Q: What area of the kitchen did you work in?
A: I was trained as a chef, at the time the CIA had no pastry program or I probably would have gone that route. After graduation I got a job in the pastry department of the newly opened Citrus restaurant. Michel Richard taught me a lot about pastry. Several years later I was the opening pastry chef for Bradley Ogden at The Lark Creek Inn and eventually I wound up in the pastry kitchen of Wolfgang Puck’s West Hollywood restaurant, Spago.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in the kitchen today?
A: Delivering a good product that is cost effective. With so many chefs opening multiple restaurants, it’s about trying to service people on a corporate level and working smarter.
Q: Where did you learn your sense of business, did you go to business school?
A: No! I attended college on an academic scholarship, studying psychology for a year but I hated the math so I changed to Near Eastern studies and women’s turn of the century literature. I don’t like dealing with the minutia of the business world. My husband on the other hand, has his MBA in finance and business. He is the CEO of Chefwear[TM], that way I can do the things I like but still stay in business. My strengths have always been my creativity and the ability to see the big picture, to delegate, and to see a project through to the end. I also listen to what people want.
Q: Where did you learn about sewing and designing?
A: Well I can’t sew well, but having to work in a chef’s uniform for twelve hours a day in a hot kitchen is education enough.
Q: How did you go about manufacturing your own line?
A: When I was working at Spago, a lot of chefs asked me where I got my pants. I had made a contact that was a fitness apparel manufacturer and she made the pants according to my specifications. One night I was working at a charity event with Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, Jonathan Waxman, Jody Denton, and Marc Valiani and decided to give them each a pair of pants to wear. It just steam rolled from there and I started taking requests.
Q: Did you redesign the chef’s uniform?
A: Well we changed the cut, added elastic waste bands, and used more comfortable fabric to suit the practical and physical needs of a chef. We also added side, snap-up panels on one of the jackets so it can ‘expand’ with the chef. We have also been working on a legging design for female chefs who are pregnant. Of course we have different hats and ‘dew wraps,’ but our most recent addition is our shoe line. We put a lot of attention into creating a durable, comfortable shoe with sturdy, slip-resistant soles. It’s taken a long time to find a manufacturer but I think we’ve succeeded.
Q: Why is your company based in Chicago?
A: Good question! Well, I started in Los Angeles then moved to Santa Monica, and then to Venice, California. During this time I met my husband Gary, who was from Cleveland. One day, over a cup of coffee, we were talking and I decided to move the company to a location closer to him. I had a lot of chef friends who told me great things about Chicago and I liked everyone I had ever met from there so I thought why not? We carried our one computer and hard drive onto the airplane. We started in a small office in downtown Chicago. Today we have a 26,000 square foot space for our corporate offices and shipping department.
Q: Is it difficult to run a company in Chicago when you live in California?
A: It’s actually easier. I get more done being in California. Late in the evening, when Gary and I get home and everything is quiet, we can respond to all the questions from our office via e-mail; that way when the Chicago crowd arrives in the morning they have the information they need. We also have great suppliers and professional management in place. Of course it helps to be on the west coast, which is one of our biggest markets and where our fabrics are printed.
Q: What were the original prints?
A: I think Jonathan Waxman’s red and white hounds-tooth pants for Table 29 was the first. Then, for David Burke we did green and white hounds-tooth pants to compliment the colors at the Park Ave Cafe. Of course I 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. The first customized print was for George Morrone, when he was at Aqua. He brought us an image, which was being used on the menu cover; it was an aquatic design taken from a relief in Pompeii. The print is still in our collection today. I eventually realized we should make the patterns more appropriate to the profession. 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.
Q: How did Nicole Miller’s patterns become part of your collection?
A: About seven years after we started, we learned that Nicole Miller was interested in designing chefs’ uniforms. It seemed like a great idea to bring a respected designer into our collection. She had already approached one of our competitors but apparently she didn’t think it was the right business fit. So we contacted her. When she and I met, an instant connection was made.
Q: Did her playful thematic patterns have a huge impact?
A: Absolutely. I think it adds a certain dignity to the idea of uniforms. The fact that a cutting edge designer like Nicole Miller did exclusive patterns for our product line is a type of morale booster to the world of uniforms.
Q: How important are uniforms to a profession?
A: 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 he looks professional.
Q: So it’s about being presentable?
A: I think that Chefwear [TM] 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. In fact we are completing a series of African print pieces, an idea brought to us by Patrick Clarke before he died. A portion of the sales will be used to establish a trust fund for his children.
Q: You sponsored a “Design a Jacket” competition from which you were going to manufacture the winner’s design. How did that go?
A: I was amazed by the number of interesting ideas. People spent so much time and money on their designs. There was a great Ying-Yang jacket that I loved, one made with material from NASA, and a crazy velvet jacket that just wasn’t practical. There were also a lot of designs that incorporated mesh vents in the side panels. That may be something we use in the future. The response was overwhelming and it was a great opportunity to raise money for Share Our Strength.
Q: How did your involvement with Share Our Strength evolve?
A: We met them several times at different occasions and I was very impressed by the number of people they reach. Because our client base is national, we felt it was important to participate in an organization that provides relief on a national level. We try to stay involved with different charities; I think we have been most involved with Meals on Wheels.
Q: You must be approached by many charities, how do you choose?
A: Well I think it is important to understand that there is philanthropy and then there’s charity. You have to decide what your goal is. We try to find both national and local charities but it can be really difficult because you don’t want to say no to anyone. We also think it is important, since we are a food industry related business to support those programs which support feeding people. There are companies like Hanna Andersson, a children’s clothes retailer and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that have set great examples for us. It’s really about wanting to contribute.
Athletes, dancers, musicians, chefs, every profession wears their coat of arms on their sleeve. 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 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[TM], 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 husband, Gary, Rochelle devoted all her time to Chefwear and continues to run the business from Los Angeles.
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, including a benefit hosted by Hillary Clinton for 1000 guests. 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 American Culinary Federation, The James Beard Foundation, Les Dames d’Escoffier, and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. Though she dresses the star chefs, her real passion was born through outfitting the needs of those who are often not in the spotlight.