Under the company moniker Weft & Warp Seamster, former chef and restaurant owner Erik Desjarlais is making aprons, knife rolls, beard soaps and skin lotion by hand in New Gloucester. The rolls and aprons are beautiful, rugged, and meticulously stitched, and clearly the work of a devoted craftsman. In addition, his lotion and beard soap, both of which are made of pig fat and other simple ingredients, are clearly the inventions of a man who spent 20 years in industrial kitchens.
I had eaten at and loved Desjarlais’ restaurants, and I knew of his reputation. His food was unbelievable, but he was known to be something of an outspoken hard ass in the “foodie” realm, and I very much related to that piece of him. He was on the top of his game when he decided to retire, and he eventually decided to go into the business of the aforementioned crafts. His whole story led me to believe that he would be a difficult person to talk to, but this could not have turned out to be further from the truth. It turns out that Desjarlais is a thoughtful, soft-spoken guy. He invited me to his house to talk about his new venture and there he, dressed in a flannel covering up a Grateful Dead shirt, served up some coffee while letting me know what he has been up to over the past couple of years.
Up until you started Weft & Warp Seamster, in what capacity were you known?
I had been a chef and restaurant owner for most of my adult life. Up until two years ago I owned a couple of restaurants in Portland and Krista [Kern Desjarlais, owner and Executive Chef at Bresca] and I had a child and I retired from cooking.
What does retirement mean for you, because it tends to mean different things for different people.
I’m done. I am never going to work in a restaurant again; I am never going to own a restaurant again; I am never going to be a chef again. 20 years. That’s a long time, especially having quit when I was 35. It was my teenage years straight through, and that’s all I did. As rewarding as it was, it was just a pain in the ass. People expect glory and it’s not. I was basically working to pay a nanny to watch our daughter.
Do you miss it at all?
I miss cooking and the challenges, but I don’t miss being a chef. I like to cook at home, but at that scale, and with the nonstop scrutiny, and with the pressure of having to please everybody, I just decided that I wasn’t going to do that.
I have known of you for a long time, and I have long known you for a reputation to speak your mind. You don’t play politics well. And, how do I say this? A lot of people are better than you are when it comes to trying to please everybody?
That’s key for running a successful restaurant. You can be critically successful, but trying to conform to what everybody else needs… For some reason I never accepted the fact that I had to please everyone. I found success in making a good dish. I think the failure was that I looked at things like, “Well, if you don’t like or understand it, then fuck you. Don’t come in.” That doesn’t pay bills.
I don’t know if you know this, but I was one of Krista’s very first servers. I had always worked in very casual dining up to that point. I had to quit immediately. I had never had migraines before, but every night I had one so bad, I had to get medical testing because I was afraid I had brain cancer or something. And nothing was wrong in my head and I just realized, oh, I can’t deal with this particular challenge. This requires a very particular mindset.
It is. Krista has the maturity to know that she has to have things on her menu that everyone loves, or to have a smaller restaurant where you can do one beautiful set of things and everyone will come to it. She runs everything meticulously. When I first met her, I worked in her kitchen for a little while to help her out and to get my chops up before opening up my restaurant Evangeline. It was one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. She was my girlfriend at the time, and she was a tough chef. I always consider myself good to learn from but tough to get along with in a kitchen, but she is very intense.
So what are you doing now, and how does it better fit your skill set?
I am making knife rolls and aprons. Being a cook for so long, I know that knives, aprons and rolls are a cook’s most personal things. After 20 years of using some great products and some crap products, I figured out what I enjoyed and channeled those into the aprons and bags I am making now. They are made from a lightly waxed canvas, nylon strapping, velcro because it works and it is a great thing, and sometimes leather.
When I was a kid, I worked with my grandfather as an upholsterer. The things I learned from him about being exact, precise, and anal… He was a master. So when I found cooking after being an an upholsterer’s apprentice, I applied what he taught me there. Now it’s full circle with that, because I am applying what I learned cooking to sewing. It is basically building something out of raw stuff. And I am a lot less stressed out than I was before.
How have they been received?
Great. Some of my customers are Top Chef guys. The James Beard list just came out and it was cool to see that most of my customers were on that list, a lot of high profile folks. I think they also like the fact that I used to be a chef so I know what is needed. I am not just cutting these things from patterns. If the chef has a particular need, I can do it.
How do people find out about them?
Word of mouth, mostly. And Twitter and other social media. I used to be against all of that, and I thought that a chef should be cooking instead of Tweeting and that a guest should be enjoying their food and not taking a photo of it. But now I am embracing Twitter because of its huge reach. There is a chef in Providence named Matt Jennings, and he and I share a lot of the same philosophies on food and he bought a roll from me and then ended up helping to spread the word. But yeah, it has all been word of mouth. I am recognizing the power of social media. [Laughs] It’s crazy.
And you are making soaps too.
Last year for my wife’s birthday, I was thinking, what can I do for her that is extra cool? I had already made her a purse and a knife roll, so I thought of making her soap. I made for her an olive oil soap and a coconut oil soap. She started using it and thought that it was great, and I realized making soap is like cooking. It is like making a sabayon or a hollandaise sauce. I have all the tools, pots, pans, whisks, and molds from the restaurant, so I started make more of it and then I started to use it in my beard and since it has become all about the beard soap.
Which is glorious, by the way.
Thank you. I didn’t like to use shampoo on my face because it makes things oily, and face wash dries things out. Then I learned about pine tar soap. It’s unlike anything else you will ever smell. I made a batch of pine tar soap and I started to use it for everything. It will make the beard soft, and it’s naturally deodorizing. It is made from pine tar, which is what you get when you put pine wood under pressure and incinerate it as fast as possible. The vikings used it to coat their boats with it to make it waterproof. On its own, it is very caustic, but when you mix it into a soap, it changes it completely. I use pork fat, caster oil, pine tar, and other simple ingredients. They are all available for mail order.
Do you think you will expand this line of products, or will you work on these in particular?
I am going to focus on these. After I left cooking, I spent a year focusing on raising our daughter, but at 36, I still needed something to do. I inherited my grandfather’s sewing machine, A 1970 Chandler Adler, and it’s amazing. So I worked through various products and tried to figure out what I could make. I also tried a bunch of other soaps. I eventually figured out the rolls, aprons and soaps and a simple lotion worked for me, and I thought that keeping the list of what I have available simple would make the most sense.
What has been most enjoyable about your transition into making these products?
I like making a product that will last. With a plate, you make it and it’s gone. With this, you make it with the hope that it will last for 50 years. It requires a similar mindset to cooking in that it is a craft. You can constantly try to make these things better and better and shoot for being excellent, but it is never going to be perfect. It is a constant evolution of skill.