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At the Pass with Tommy Banks

This month Tommy Banks, chef & owner of Roots (York) and the Michelin-starred Black Swan at Oldstead, considers the odd similarities between denim and scallops

Words by Tommy BANKS

By and large, us chefs can often be a scruffy bunch. It’s not our fault, necessarily, we just happen to be dressed with function rather than form in mind. Crocs – or Birkenstocks if you’re feeling fancy – used to be (and to some extent, still are) standard kitchen attire. You could often spot a chef a mile off in the pub, as they’d be the only ones who thought it was acceptable to wear a pair of crocs outside of the kitchen.

That’s not to say we’re totally devoid of style, however, and things have certainly relaxed a little bit nowadays in terms of kitchen uniforms. Slim fit jeans and trainers do the job just as well behind the pass, with the added benefit of feeling less like a uniform. Obviously, the white chef jacket remains. It’s the last bastion of stylistic tradition in the kitchen, after all. But even that is often tailored for a more flattering fit and made of a more comfortable material.

At first glance, swapping Crocs for Nikes and tailoring your chef whites might seem like a bit of a faff, but it’s all about how you feel in what you’re wearing, even at work. Personally, I feel pretty good in my chef clobber and I’d like to think it shows. What you wear can often give you the boost you need to approach people differently, with a little more character or confidence.

I remember one time I left my chef whites in the car while it was being serviced, I was halfway back to York before I realised I didn’t have them. I was set to host an evening with some 25 sommeliers all hailing from different restaurants that evening, so I had no choice but to buy a quick replacement. I felt the difference immediately. It was a cheap and nasty little number compared to my usual jacket, and the fit was horrible. Naturally, it threw me off for the entire evening. I just didn’t feel like myself. 

How you think you look can really affect your work. At both Roots and The Black Swan at Oldstead, we swap to fresh aprons for evening service after a day’s prep. It’s an instant livener. You feel pretty refreshed and ready for service. What you wear often dictates how you feel (which then affects how you work). The same goes for the guests that visit our restaurant. It’s a beautiful thing to see: Each table brings a style of their own, and they look happiest when they’re at their most comfortable. 

‘At first glance, swapping Crocs for Nikes and tailoring your chef whites might seem like a bit of a faff, but it’s all about how you feel in what you’re wearing, even at work.’

I know it sounds a little odd: A chef giving any kind of advice on questions of style. But there are a few parallels to be drawn between food and fashion. The biggest overlap is in quality, whether we’re talking about the quality of a fabric or the quality of an ingredient. You can make something look as good as you want, but if the quality isn’t there then you’ll soon find out. Take denim, for example. You can spot a well-made pair of jeans a mile off, they exude quality, and it holds up upon further inspection. It’s an odd analogy (so bare with me), but the same could be said for something like the scallop. A perfect, pearly, hand-dived scallop is hard to beat. It’s world class, it just oozes quality.

So you could say there’s certainly some overlap in the realms of food and fashion. I mean, I’d like to say that the food industry is more challenging, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I once shot a lovely little video with Mr Porter that had me modelling clothes in the middle of a full on blizzard. The video turned out great, but I’ll never forget how it felt to be walking through a mucky field in sub zero temperatures with my jacket open just to get a nice shot. Make no mistake, modelling is a dangerous business. So, as a general rule, I prefer to stick to the relative warmth and safety of my restaurants’ kitchens, wearing a jacket that fits, in my slim jeans and a pair of shoes that aren’t bloody crocs. TB   

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