By Bringing Individuality & Femininity To The Kitchen, This Woman Is Challenging The Idea Of What A Chef Looks Like
In the self-described chaotic life of chef Tara Thomas, there's no such thing as "stopping for an outfit change." During the day, she might go from the office to a community farm to source ingredients for a pop-up event or food installation. At night, she might start out julienning and plating in a sweltering kitchen, then end up hobnobbing with patrons at a formal dinner. These are the unpredictable situations the Portland native has learned to dress for — with plenty of style.
"My work isn't just in the kitchen," Thomas says. "It's running around the city, having lots of tasks, maybe sitting in the office for a few hours of the day, then last-minute having to run and cook something or put together an event. So it's really important for me to be versatile."
Earlier this month, Thomas helped open Che, a desert-inspired restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood with a seasonal, plant-based menu rooted in African and West Indian cuisine. On the eve of the space's introduction to the world, we tagged along as Thomas made her pre-launch rounds, wearing SOREL, the maker of stylish footwear for women on the go.
While her quietly elegant aesthetic has to adapt to a variety of environments, both rugged and refined, Thomas' main objective when getting dressed — and the building blocks used to achieve it — remain consistent. "The key factors in chefs' clothing are comfort and protection of your body from any conditions in the kitchen," she says. At work, she relies on staples like painless shoes she can spend hours on her feet in (like the SOREL boots pictured here), wide-leg trousers, bodysuits, and other layerable pieces that let her easily move from the back to the front of the house at Che or from her desk to a vegetable patch — sometimes all in a matter of hours.
Equally crucial to Thomas is challenging the idea of what a chef looks like, beyond the classical white-coat-and-toque uniform. "There's still so much masculinity in chefs' clothes," she says. "With [clothing marketing] that's like, 'This is a sporty material, it's going to resist all this stuff,' it's so targeted towards men, and there's nothing gentle." To bring a sense of softness and individuality to the kitchen, Thomas chooses natural textiles "that grow with you," splashes of color with a well-placed sock or scarf, and thrifted pants not of the industry-standard chalk-striped variety. "Women really identify with expressive style, so it's nice for those of us in the kitchen to [show] our femininity."
There's still so much masculinity in chefs' clothes.
Wherever her ever-changing career takes her, Thomas says preemptive dressing is "crucial to your success," as a form of mental and creative readiness. "I want to feel inspired when I'm looking at a piece, but it should also be a reflection of me, because your closet is a repertoire for how you're going to prepare for the day. Having an option for every situation means I'm capable of doing anything."
And as she grows and diversifies her business, Thomas' portfolio of ready-for-it-all looks will also likely expand. But for now, as this restaurant project comes to fruition, Thomas says she's content to take a rare pause to bask in the moment.
"I'm such a motivator, and I'm always trying to push positivity and good energy," she says. "It's not unusual to have fear along with [the restaurant opening], because, wow, this thing is really happening, it's really here. The mood is to have a positive experience and be happy with how far we’ve come... It's so easy for me to get caught up in everything I have [going on], so it's really important to be thankful."