Alex McCrery was never a fan of traditional chef wear — those high-necked, long-sleeved white coats and baggy pajama pants.
Even when he made the move after 15 years in restaurants to working as a private chef in NYC (fun fact: for Jerry Seinfeld), he was having trouble finding clothes that would work both in the kitchen and on the street going to greenmarkets.
So McCrery traded kitchen knives for industrial fabric cutters and launched a functional yet fashionable hospitality workwear line with his wife, Jenny Goodman.
“We were taking chef wear and making it street accessible and current,” said McCrery, 39. “Not having been able to wear what I wanted to for so long, I wanted to make something that could be easily transferred to the street without looking like a goon, basically.”
Tilit (short for “utility”) started in 2012 with four pieces — two aprons, a pair of pants and a workshirt. Today, it has expanded its line to chef coats, jumpers, dresses and more apron and workshirt designs. It is quickly outgrowing its Lower East Side production facility and showroom, with a team of 13, and has expanded production to Los Angeles and Hong Kong as well.
About half of Tilit’s business comes from creating custom pieces for restaurants, hotels and hospitality groups for both front and back of the house staff. The rest comes from selling to online customers, from professional chefs to cooking enthusiasts.
Some of the line’s best-selling pieces were created for restaurants, such as the contra apron — designed for one of their first customers, Lower East Side’s Contra.
Tilit is also adding pieces and limited-edition fabrics, from a wrinkle-free apron to a new workshirt called the chore shirt, which has coated metal buttons that won’t get hot and a boxier fit.
“It’s a split between Japanese menswear and a classic barbershop coat,” McCrery said. “It’s a neat look.”
And while most of the line is unisex, Tilit also makes pieces tailored toward female chefs. Its chef coats have both men’s and women’s cuts, it launched a wrap apron this past fall designed for women and McCrery and Goodman are currently developing a pair of women’s pants.
“From the beginning we tried to make sure we included women in the process,” said Goodman, 35, who designed the wrap apron. “We definitely try to think about everyone in the industry.”
Even with updates, Tilit does keep some design features consistent, from an apron holder at the neck of their shirts (an element added at the request of chef Mads Refslund that has become a signature ever since) to “pit vents” for underarm breathability to longer backs for coverage when bending over to pockets with space made for a sharpie. Many of its aprons are also made with a waxed cotton, coated to repel liquids, and have welted front pockets to keep food from getting in them.
Tilit has found clients through word of mouth, by staying in touch with chef customers as they hop around from restaurant to restaurant and through social media. It also connects with cooks through events such as Indie Chefs Week, which it has sponsored in the past in Austin and is sponsoring for its first-ever New York City event, held May 18-21.
As restaurants become less formal and bring chefs out in the open, the couple have noticed more attention paid to what the chefs are wearing.
“The back of the house is no longer hidden in the back anymore,” Goodman said. “Today, every restaurant you go into you see the chefs.”
McCrery has also gradually seen a change in the chef uniform since his days in the kitchen.
“There are still some people that are very classic, but even a couple of the old [chef wear] companies have tried to jump on the bandwagon and do urban lines, which is good,” he said. “I’m happy to see things change for the industry. It’s nice to be the one leading the charge.”