Ellen Bennett is the founder of Hedley & Bennett—a handcrafted apron company based in downtown Los Angeles. Her aprons are worn by cooks and chefs in top restaurants around LA, like Providence, Alma, Animal, Ink, Bestia, Patina, and many others. Her aprons have an incredible attention to detail, are made from high quality material such as Japanese denim, and look very fashionable. More importantly, they are functional in the kitchen as Bennett is a cook herself at Providence. I had the chance to sit down with Ellen at her studio to hear her inspiring story, and experience her enthusiasm.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in both Glendale, CA, and Mexico. I am half Mexican and half English. When I was little I would go to Mexico two to three months at a time and was literally immersed in the culture, running around the streets barefoot and everything. Then I would come back to the US and be in an American school and immediately become an American again. I went back and forth between the two my entire youth. It kept me humble and forced me to look at life in a more “real” sort of way.
I valued the stupid little things like eating beans, cheese, tortillas, and… instant coffee! I told myself, “When I grow up, I want to live in Mexico.” So when I turned 19 I moved to Mexico City by myself. I got my nationality, started paying taxes, and then said to myself, “Okay now I have to get a job.” So I started modeling and got an agency to represent me. I was simultaneously a translator for random companies, and eventually got a job as a talk show host on an American football show because I had a perfect English accent. Even though my Spanish wasn’t perfect, they thought I was great because I could say San Francisco 49ers correctly.
Then wanted to go to school, so I got my dad to pay for culinary school where I studied restaurant administration. Later, I got a full scholarship for an acting program at TV Azteca, so I started doing that during the week in between everything else and, later still, I landed a job as the lottery announcer for Mexico. I had all these crazy, random, well-rounded experiences and did them completely on my own.
Of course, I’m telling you all the great things, but it was also really hard. I looked white and got seriously ripped off, so living in Mexico forced me to develop some serious backbone. I literally had to hustle every day. Every day. And I did it for almost four years.
Eventually I graduated culinary school, and passed acting school as well. The acting school said the next step was to sign a ten year contract with TV Azteca and be exclusive with them and my reaction was, “uh… no!” The girls I went to school with are now the stars of novelas. It was either become a Mexican movie star or go back to the United States and see what I was going to do with my cooking. I chose the option of the United States and sold everything I owned.
My dad is an American Airlines pilot and before I turned 23, I had free reign on any American Airlines flight. So I went on a trip around the world by myself at 22 for two and half months. I turbo traveled. Flew to Japan and climbed Mt. Fuji. Went to Argentina and walked around. Went to Uruguay, went to Europe, all over the place. At the end of it, I was exhausted. I was banging out a country like every two days. That trip really opened my eyes about the world and how accessible it is; it really simplified everything. There were no longer any “what ifs.” My decision-making process became to just think about what you’re gonna do and then act on it; just decide and do.
When I got back to the US, I had a friend give me a list of the best restaurants in LA, and I walked into all ten restaurants and handed my resume to each of the chefs. I gave them a little speech about why they should hire me to work in their kitchen. Providence and Lazy Ox both hired me at the same time. I worked three days at Lazy Ox and three days at Providence.
How did Hedley & Bennett get started?
Being in a kitchen after being a model, everything is so ugly. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to make chef coats, but my friend (who was my right-hand guy) said we should do aprons instead. We did an order for Baco together and then we started to get busy. At that point, he said he wasn’t into it and left. We had clients and orders, so at that moment it could have come crashing down because I was on my own and didn’t know what I was doing. There was a different name and different bank accounts, so I had to restart the business in like two days so I can maintain the movement that I had going on my own. So Hedley & Bennett was born. Hedley is my English grandfather and Bennett is my last name (and also my nickname in the kitchen). Hedley is very classy, dignified, genius, and literally built rockets that went to the moon. And Bennett is me, which I’m absolutely crazy and bonkers. Dignified and crazy, which is the style of my company.
How would you describe the quality of the aprons?
It came down to visiting places that had fabric and zoning in on colors and certain weights. It was all instinct. No one taught me. I ended up going with a range in between jeans and a light t-shirt. This was all trial and error by wearing the aprons in the kitchen and have other people wear aprons. When I was in fabric places, I would always say, “Wow this denim is really beautiful,” and it was always Japanese denim. I started sourcing more and more denims, then expanded to Italian chambray and canvas. Then linen. But linen is too thin, so I thought to make it reversible and make it two sides of linen. Two sheets of it make it the perfect weight and you have pockets on both sides so if you get one side dirty, you can flip it around.
What is the process from start to finish for an apron?
You get the order with someone requesting a fabric. We take a yard of that fabric and test wash it, to make sure it washes really well and find out if it shrinks or how much bleeding happens. We source the fabric from in town, out of town, or Japan—wherever it needs to be from. The sewer then takes the bolster of fabric and lays them out in sheets, and puts the pattern on top of it. With a saw machine, they cut the fabric. After you cut, then it goes into sewing and they add all of these details to it. The neck straps are adjustable, so both short and tall people can wear the apron. It’s versatile and comfortable.
What’s next for Hedley & Bennett?
My goal is to go international. First I want to cover the United States. I’ve pretty much covered LA. Everyone that I wanted to capture in LA has been captured! Now we’re working on New York and Chicago. I’m working on getting the top guys in the world, like Mario Batali. Then get into England and try to get Jamie Oliver and revolutionize the way restaurants wear their aprons. We have infinite possibilities! Restaurants open up every day, every week, every year. There always people that need better aprons. Because it started in a kitchen and it’s staying in the kitchen, it’s very functional. Everything about these aprons is legitimately workable and necessary. Stuff that you couldn’t come up with unless you slaved away in front of a hot fire for eight hours and know how it feels like to do that. Innovation is something we’re constantly working on here at Hedley & Bennett.
As far as support goes, we’re always on top of it. If there’s an issue, we fix it. If a package gets lost, we ship another apron. Our number one priority with anyone that receives an apron is that they’re happy about it. If they’re not happy about it, we’ll do something about it immediately. Companies are always going to have issues. There will always be some detail that gets missed or overlooked, but if you don’t grab it by the balls, it’s can become an infection. We aim to be an amazing customer service-based company and I think we’re doing a good job of that. It’s very personal to me.
Aprons by Hedley & Bennett can be purchased at their website