There is a certain egalitarian virtue to the Republic Master Chefs Linen Service. In this weathered downtown warehouse, the mustard-bespattered apron of a lunch-truck vendor travels through the rinse cycle with a five-star smock sprinkled with Gewurztraminer sauce. Brad Shames, the third-generation president of the family-owned business, rents out restaurant linens to 2,000 area clients, including the disparate likes of Granita and Johnny Rockets, the Hotel Bel-Air and the Cheesecake Factory. That's 450,000 pounds of the stuff a week. Including the hats.
Despite the popularity of paper chef's hats and short-order baseball caps, Shames still rents out 3,000 linen toques at about 75 cents each per week. It's your standard Chef Boyardee variety, although the stovepipe stalks and mushroom crowns are starched to a fine crispness. "It's adjustable to your head size," Shames explains, slipping a hat's brass fasteners into various notches, "depending on where your head is at." Some of the city's more renowned chefs demand custom toques by Brigard, a crown consummate to their elevated station, and Shames is happy to oblige. "Say the chef's a real prima donna," Shames says hypothetically. "They're going to do whatever he wants because he is whoever he is."
With their television appearances and gourmet frozen food lines and well-publicized dessert flourishes at Oscar night galas, many local chefs have become so visible that culinary clothing designers are deluging them with free coats and toques. Shames can boast that Republic furnished the professional wear that Emeril Lagasse sports on his Food Channel show, and provides Wolfgang Puck with his chef whites, no small job as Puck routinely shuns any other attire. "Wolfgang wears a chef's coat 24 hours a day," says Shames. "I've seen him at a black tie dinner, wearing a chef's coat with a black tie around the collar."
Some celebrity chefs go so far as to invest $150 for a designer smock in which to preen before an adoring public. Not that they're about to actually cook in it. "They put on a clean chef's coat to go greet the guests," Shames says. "But they don't want it to get dirty, so they take it off while they're in the kitchen."