L.A. Designer: Ellen Bennett Designs Aprons for SpaceX and Earthling Cooks

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This young designer is behind the aprons at your favorite L.A. restaurants and the SpaceX cafeteria.

6th annual Pie Contest, taking place this year at UCLA’s Fowler Museum and featuring mouth-watering pies for the delectation of competitors and attendees. Good Food’s Evan Kleiman will preside and the jury includes Jonathan Gold, Sherry Yard, Russ Parsons and many other foodie luminaries.

So with floury, fatty hands in mind, this week we chose to feature as our LA Designer the apron maker Ellen Bennett. She is the one-time line-cook who turned her total dislike of the apron she had to wear for work into an exploding business: designing and manufacturing (in Los Angeles) aprons that are now worn by hundreds of restaurateurs nationwide (in L.A.: Trois Mec, Providence, Animal, Son of a Gun, Baco Mercat, Rustic Canyon, Melisse among others).

Her company Hedley & Bennett (Hedley was her “rocket scientist” grandfather’s name) has produced over 60 designs, and this week Bennett (above left), 27, was named one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 “rock stars” of the food world. 

She is currently working with Patagonia on creating “totally organic,” made-in-America aprons; she’s about to launch a linen and leather apron purpose-designed for florists (the shears don’t rip the leather pockets); and she went into the stratosphere of apron-making when she was invited to do something “extraordinary” for the cooking staff at Elon Musk’s SpaceX

She told DnA: “We did crazy aprons for SpaceX; they are reversible, they split in half, and have reflective lining like lines on the road to reflect at night. Anything that is made for SpaceX has to be extraordinary right down to the aprons their kitchen crew wears. I went there many times, it was not an overnight design, it took us many months to create something as unique and extraordinary as SpaceX.

The cafeteria is in the rocket factory. Everything is very intergalactic in there; you have rockets hanging from the ceiling and people are working around in blue suits. So the cafeteria is also very spacey, with a matt black floor, glass windows open so you can see the kitchen, and all the chairs are very round and Herman Miller-like.

They cook 3,000 meals a day for all the people that work there. They are not just making potatoes and meatballs; their kitchen is led by the same chef who is developing food for outer space and they are very into taking care of their staff all day long, every day. People work there 24 hours a day, it doesn’t close. So the food is very nutrition oriented; they have a juicebars every day where they create different juices daily with extreme amounts of vegetables and fruits all jammed in.”

Last year Good Food host Evan Kleiman interviewed Ellen about the genesis of her business and where it goes next. Listen to the audio and read the Q and A here. For more information on the pie contest, click here. This is the last week to register. For more information about Hedley & Bennett, click here.

Ellen in storeEvan Kleiman: How did it all begin?

Ellen Bennett: While I was getting my butt kicked at Providence, and cleaning the fish box at night, paying my dues as a line cook. I was like “I just really hate these uniforms. They’re so bad, I want them to be better! I want us to look awesome.” And I’m a runner right, so when I started running I went out and bought myself an amazing outfit. So I got a great Adidas outfit. And I was like “I look fantastic! This is going to be amazing, I’m such a great runner already!” And that was step one for me. So I kind of thought with imagine all these line cooks that are making minimum wage, like literally being torn to shreds. If they could just have something that would raise their own self-esteem and make them feel better as a cook while they’re paying their dues on their way to becoming a great chef like how amazing would it be if I could do something like that. And then the apron sort of started developing.

EK: Are you a sewer? 

EB: No, I don’t even know how to sew. I know how to design and I’m Mexican. And all my sewers were Mexican, they were all Spanish so I had a really easy time explaining and communicating exactly what I wanted to have made in my aprons.

Spacex_FrontEK: But what was the first step that said “oh I have to make an apron”? Was it for you personally, do you have an aesthetic relationship with fabric?

EB: It was really a lot of gut. A lot of gut feeling, like “I don’t like this fabric because it’s too heavy, I need something lighter. It needs to not burn, it can’t be polyester cause it won’t breathe.” Literally all based on instinct, and the things that I didn’t like in my own apron. So it was really based on a need. My own need to improve my outfit and to improve other people’s. But it actually was like a side thought to my chef cook collection, I initially wanted to do chef coats. It was so complicated that a friend of mine was like why don’t you do aprons? And I was like mmm alright well I guess I could start with that and we’ll see how that goes. So it really was just a little side glimmer.

EK: So you’re Bennett, who’s Hedley?

EB: Hedley was my grandfather who is a dignified English man, he was a genius. He was literally a rocket scientist. And then Bennett is my last name as well as my nickname at Providence when I was cooking there.  So dignified and crazy is the style of my company.

EK: I love that. For people who have never seen your aprons, describe the elements of them that are your signature.

EB: My favorite things about my aprons is that that neck straps, all of them are adjustable. And we use antique brass hardware, so we’re not talking about ugly plastic hardware. We use real brass. And we use webbing that’s one inch think so it’ll never cut into your neck and it’ll never cut into your sides. And that’s one of the things that I complained about the most, with my other ugly aprons. They were like shoe straps, they were awful and disgusting. So that’s really cool. Every pocket has a little bar tack on it and that’s a sewing technique that clamps down the fabric so that it’ll never rip off. My pockets used to rip off all the time because I’m kind of like a bulldozer in the kitchen. So I’d get caught onto things and then literally the pocket would rip off and that’s a pain. So we did that on all the pockets and they’re longer, they fit really well, they really like hug your sides. It’s not like they’re dangling or lumpy, they just fit really well. I have people buy them and they’ll literally walk out of my studio with the apron on cause they’re like “I’m not going to take it off all day!”

EK: Were the girls in the kitchens the first converts?

EB: No believe it or not, it was all men. Men, dudes, boys, they were all about it. And I literally would go to the farmers market when I first started this and I was still a line cook, I would go to the farmers market with my sous chef and be like “hey, hey,” like I’d poke him with the elbow, “introduce me to that guy! Who’s that guy! I want to meet that chef!” And then he’d go and stick me in front of them and I’d literally do like a 30 second elevator pitch with a bag of aprons and be like, “Can I try an apron on you? Here, what do you think?” And before you knew it, I had like an order on the spot from some random chef. But that’s like how it began, so it was with chefs at the market and chefs that knew my chef. And yea, they were mainly all men, believe it or not.

EK: How much of an issue was the whole laundering thing because a lot of restaurants choose to order aprons from the laundry company that they get their napkins from, and their towels from, because they don’t have to think about it. Everybody just throws it into a bag and then it gets taken away, laundered, ironed, and brought back.

EB: Right. Well, it’s funny because right when I started Hedley & Bennett, I feel like it was right when the revolution of chefs becoming more famous and becoming the front line instead of in the back doing cooking you know. Now it’s like, the chef is the star. So right at the same time, chefs started to want to look better, and they wanted to feel better, and they’re always talking to guests so you know it just sorta came hand in hand with that. And then because restaurants became such an important thing in the world, it’s like front of house people, the waiters, they didn’t want to have the typical outfit anymore. Restaurateurs wanted to sort of make a difference. So now that this apron that I created was starting to become the new uniform. So instead of buying, you know a collared shirt and the typical black pants with black sneakers. It’s like they were giving them an apron and saying wear a white shirt and a pair of jeans and they looked frickin’ awesome!

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EK: The ones you first started with, the classic kitchen apron, how many pockets did you decide that it needed to have?

EB: Well I started with two lap pockets. With an angle, kind of like the back of jeans. And a tweezer pocket on the top. That was like my very first apron, after that I started to get a little more comfortable with my designs. Because I literally started with black, grey, vanilla, and then I thought “mm what about some stripes?” And now we do everything from linens to yellows to pink, blue, and orange, and I’ve gotten much more crazier. But yea I think that the pockets now are anything from towel loops to triple chest pockets to little side towel loops. We even have this thing so you can stick your knife in an apron, I mean that was like a special design but we’ve done pretty much the full spectrum of pockets.

Processed with VSCOcam with s2 presetEK: Give me an idea of how many, how many restaurants are wearing your aprons these days.

EB: You know what’s ridiculous? A secret between you and me, I don’t know. There’s so many, we’ve lost track.

EK: It’s hundreds.

EB: Hundreds, definitely. And it’s all over the United States and you know people have asked me like, “what’s your next plan?” And it’s kind of crazy because I had all these goals, and I’ve accomplished all of them. So now I’m in this new stage where I’m figuring out what the next step is. Where are we taking Hedley & Bennett? What do we want to do with Hedley & Bennett? And what I say to that is that I want to make Hedley & Bennett the Mac of the apron world, I think everything about Apple is so perfect because everyone strives to be like them yet they’re so simple and perfect and timeless. And everything they make is so fantastic but without too much struggle. And that’s what I like want for Hedley & Bennett. I want to be in the whole world and we are damn well going to do it.

5th Annual KCRW Pie Contest at LACMA  67 (1)