With so many Big Things happening in hospitality – the fundraises, the launches, the CVAs and social media spats – it doesn’t leave much airtime to talk about the smaller things. So CODE turned its gaze downward, and asked chefs, restaurateurs and front of house stars about their choice of footwear. Given the industry spends more time on its feet more than any other, it’s far more than an afterthought. The days of black court shoes for front of house or black plastic Crocs in the kitchen are behind us – it turns out what you wear on your feet can say more than you’d think. But who do these shoes belong to?
Linda Lee, Korean restaurateur and owner of On The Bab, KOBA, Mee Market and On The Dak, counts collecting cool trainers amongst her hobbies. The day we meet she’s wearing a pair of sell-out Triple S Balenciaga sneakers in pink and white. Though to an undiscerning eye they could look like an outsized pair of gym trainers, to others their swollen shapes and slabs of colour make them a work of art; they’ll also set you back at least £600. “They give you everything,” says Linda, “comfort, style and they’re strong. The only bad thing is they’re expensive”.
“But I work between all my sites and then have meetings. And I’ll sometimes go into Mayfair after lunch – I can’t be changing my shoes all the time,” she reasons. And how many pairs of trainers are there in total? “Do you mean just the sneakers and slip-on trainers? Just the work shoes? Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy.” There’s a long pause. “Maybe 20 or 30 pairs?”
I wonder what happens when they reach the end of their lifecycle, does she throw them away? She looks confused. “I always keep them pristine. One of my hobbies is cleaning them. You know toothpaste is very helpful for cleaning the rubber bit at the bottom”. I ask if there’s a particular brand, but she says, “I use whatever I have in. Just normal toothpaste is fine”.
Standing outside his Pollen Street Social restaurant, chef Jason Atherton cuts a sharp image in his custom chef whites and well-tailored trousers, a pair of Berluti loafers on his feet. The outfit is not just for the shoot, this is his everyday uniform: “It works for the kitchen, for meetings at the bank and for coming out and talking to guests. If you look smart, it makes people feel good”.
Atherton used to wear Birkenstocks before having a serious accident in the kitchen. “Ben Tish and I used to work together years ago and one time we were carrying a massive pot of reduced veal stock. We put it on the stove and Ben had used his apron to hold his side, but as he walked off his apron stayed wrapped around the handle...” The stock severely burned both chefs and they ended up in hospital. Worse, still, was that Atherton’s Birkenstocks completely melted and he ended up having to have a skin graft from his leg. “It was horrendous. They literally just dissolved. So I’ve never worn them since.”
These days he only wears “proper shoes”, by which he means an enviable collection of Corthay’s, Gaziano & Girling’s and Berluti’s, most of which slip into a four-figure price bracket. I wonder how they fare in a hazardous kitchen environment. “I have a system,” he says. “I buy shoes and then I wear them when I go out. And once I feel like I’ve worn them enough and I’ll be able to get some new shoes, they then go onto the rack for the kitchen.”
Everything is still very fresh upon meeting Emma Underwood outside Stem, including the paintwork. It’s only been open for three weeks and the young restaurant manager is still adjusting to the change of style from her previous gig in Stockport. “It’s the complete opposite,” she says. “At Where the Light gets in it’s very anti-formality. I’ve picked up these little habits and now people are like, ‘Emma, you know you’re supposed to serve the ladies first?’”
“I’d usually wear trainers, actually, but this is the first restaurant I haven’t been allowed to wear them. I worked for Gary Usher’s restaurants before that for five years and most people wore trainers or Birkenstocks. I had my own custom-made Nike Janoski’s in grey suede. I dropped chocolate on them the first day I got them.”
Today Emma is sporting a pair of black patent platform brogues. “You can’t have shoes with a really flat sole. I used to wear Nikes because of the bubbles in the soles, and Birkenstock mould to your feet, so these have got a little platform. I get quite bad back problems from being on my feet all the time - I’ve got really
short hamstrings apparently - so these help. Sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it?”
“I’d recommend Clarks. I wanted some from Russell & Bromley but I’ve just moved to London and can’t afford it yet. But I think they’re worth it.”
How does Yevgeny Chichvarkin choose his shoes in the morning? “It depends on my mood. It’s a very emotional decision. Sometimes I know, sometimes it’s quite spontaneous.” The Russian entrepreneur who owns Hedonism Wines (“The best wine shop in the world”, he says) and has just opened the Piccadilly restaurant Hide with Ollie Dabbous, owns approximately 60 pairs of shoes, which he keeps safely stored in a shoe wardrobe. “My partner Tatiana also has a shoe wardrobe, but hers are black, black, black... and my ones are all different colours, not one of them black.”
One of his preferred brands is ultra-niche Austrian designer Carol Christian Poell. Today he is wearing a bright yellow pair, one of the more expensive in his collection, costing around £1,500. Back in Russia, where Chichvarkin hasn’t been able to return for nine years, it’s ever pricier. “You can be very experimental and loud about your shoes in Russia but it’s more expensive because of the taxes. It was Soviet law to protect the industry and the tax was at 43 per cent.”
Why are shoes so important to him? “Because in the restaurant in the evening I’m not comfortable to wear my normal clothes; it’s not a fine dining look.” (His taste in bright colours and outlandish design very much extends to the rest of his wardrobe.) “And really the shoes... The only thing that’s always with me is my shoes.”
“If I didn’t have to wear shoes, I wouldn’t wear shoes,” says Damian Clisby. “When I used to go to Wilderness I would walk around barefoot for four days. It’s one of the most invigorating things in the world, isn’t it?”
Clisby is chef director of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond and Covent Garden. He was drawn into the restaurant world by his grandfather, who in his youth was a butcher at Smithfield and later owned a farm
in County Limerick. “He’d talk to his chickens and milk the cows. He was the one that got me into it.” His grandfather also had some words of wisdom about judging certain things in life. “He’d say: ‘You judge a restaurant by its soup and its toilets. And you judge a gentleman by his handshake and the shoes he wears’”.
Clisby has just bought a nice pair of brogues from Cheaney & Sons, which he might sport for a work event but would never wear in the kitchen. “They would just get covered in grease,” he says. He wears Birkenstocks, which he considers pretty much an ideal chef shoe as it allows the feet to breathe - though he would make them more sturdy if he could.
“You should have asked my partner about this stuff,” he says. “She works for [Vivienne] Westwood and has about 400 pairs. One day she brought home some orange plastic Westwood shoes and said, ‘I think these would be fantastic for you darling’ and I just said, ‘no thanks’”.