Ellen Bennett loved working as a chef but hated the uniforms. So she designed her own.
Hey, you, over there! Get up off the couch and come peel something!” Wearing one of the handmade aprons she designs for Hedley & Bennett, Ellen Bennett wants company in her kitchen. Immediately, those friends on the couch—chefs Ludo Lefebvre, Michael Cimarusti and Bruce Kalman, and actors Jenna Elfman and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, all members of a group Bennett lovingly calls The Apron Squad—jump up. “My entire life is very colorful,” Bennett says. “And I get everybody to join in.”
In the three years since launching her company at age 24, Bennett has enthusiastically built her business and the ranks of The Apron Squad. Today, the group includes chefs Mario Batali, David Chang and Nobu Matsuhisa as well as legions of baristas, bartenders, ceramics artists, florists and barbers. Bennett had never done any sewing or design work before launching Hedley & Bennett, but she had plenty of firsthand experience with the rigors of restaurant life. After working as a model to pay her way through culinary school in Mexico, she moved back to her native Los Angeles looking for a job as a line cook. When she was offered positions at Providence and Bäco Mercat as well as a personal-chef gig for Elfman, she said yes to all three opportunities. She loved the work but hated the uniforms and how she felt wearing them. “When I was a model, life was very pretty,” she says. “My outfits were always pretty. My hair always looked good. So to go from that environment to being a line cook and getting yelled at all day and sweating in these terrible uniforms, I thought, We need to find a way to make people feel better when they cook.”
She began sewing aprons, toting them to farmers’ markets to unroll on the nearest car hood for anyone who showed interest. Chefs like Michael Voltaggio became guinea pigs in her experiments to develop the perfect apron. Now, her designs feature durable Japanese selvage denim and American canvas, reinforced pockets for Sharpies and tweezers, and wide, adjustable straps that don’t cut into the neck. Her reputation has spread beyond the world of chefs: Recently, Ferguson, a star of the sitcom Modern Family, made an appointment to work with her on a custom design, a birthday gift from his husband.
Bennett loves collaboration both in the studio and in the kitchen, so for her party she enlists friends to help cook. The menu revolves around dishes that recall her childhood, which was split between L.A. and her grandmother’s house in Mexico. Grilled-corn salad evokes memories of buying little cups of corn from a bicycle vendor near where her grandmother lives. “At the end of the day, I’m a very simple person,” she says. “Bright food—and aprons—make me happy.”