Edmonton has a culinary secret under its hat, and that secret is Claude Buzon.
Buzon – once a celebrated chef in the Edmonton culinary scene who helmed kitchens at restaurants like The Great Escape, La Boheme and the eponymous Claude – is the owner and CEO of Chef’s Hat Inc., a manufacturer of disposable chefs’ hats and other kitchen apparel headquartered in a northwest Edmonton industrial park. From its 15,000-square-foot facility, Chef’s Hat supplies hats, jackets and pants to restaurants and culinary schools around the world.
As such, the job requires a lot of travel. The company has distributors in Las Vegas; Provost, Que.; Winnipeg; and France. Last October alone, Buzon had meetings in Toronto; London, England; and Reykjavik, Iceland. But despite doing business across the globe, he has never dreamed of moving the base of his operations away from Edmonton.
“I’ve always loved Edmonton. From the minute I arrived in Edmonton, I fell in love with the city,” he says.
Buzon came to Canada from France in 1973, first landing in Montreal before making his way west. He served as the matre d’ at The Sahara, along Groat Road near Westmount, for two years before he and two partners bought The Great Escape, which was already on a list of the 10 best restaurants in Canada compiled by Cosmopolitan magazine.
After five years of success at The Great Escape – diners were making reservations six months in advance to get one of the restaurant’s 32 seats – Buzon opened a new restaurant, Claude, at Jasper Avenue and 107th Street, where, being so close to the Alberta Legislature, his regulars included political power players like Peter Lougheed, Don Getty and Ralph Klein. But in the 1990s, after a stint at the Shaw Conference Centre, Buzon decided he’d had enough of the restaurant grind, always working holidays and weekends when he’d rather be at home celebrating with his family.
Luckily, Buzon recalled an encounter he’d had on a trip to Paris years earlier. There, he’d met Daniel Demagny, a chef-turned-inventor who had designed and was selling a unique disposable chef’s hat called La Toque Demagny. In 1996, Buzon bought Demagny’s company and designs lock, stock and barrel, and moved everything to Edmonton. He started with one sewing machine in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse near Oliver Square.”The chef hat was the only thing we were making,” he says. “Now we are 15,000 square feet and bursting at the seams.”
Today, Chef’s Hat Inc. sells about 80,000 hats every month, all with the words “La Toque Demagny” printed inside. His clients include the Canadian Culinary Federation, Toronto’s George Brown College and Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools. Jackets and other kitchen apparel were added to the catalogue in 2000, and now make up about half the company’s business.
The secret of Buzon’s hats lays in the viscose material that is manufactured exclusively for the company in Spain – material that makes them more durable, breathable and absorbent than others on the market.
“Only two people know: I know what goes in, and the company in Spain knows what goes in. It’s kind of a trade secret,” he says, noting that a regular paper hat might cost $1 and last one day, whereas his cost $3.50 but last eight to 10 days. “It’s like Kentucky Fried Chicken – they won’t tell you what spices they have in there.”
Up until about eight years ago, all of the company’s manufacturing was done right here in Edmonton. But, with skilled workers becoming, in his opinion, harder and harder to recruit, Buzon moved hat production to Macau, near Hong Kong. However, much of the apparel construction and customization work – heat-pressing logos onto hats, embroidering names on jackets, adding coloured piping, even custom-tailoring clothes – is still handled in Edmonton.
With so many international markets involved in its production, Chef’s Hat’s expenses are tallied up in U.S. dollars, which have become the standard units of currency in global business. So, Buzon says he isn’t saving much money by outsourcing production – but it’s not all about the bottom line.
“It’s not the savings. For me, to manufacture 80,000 chef hats here [in Edmonton] , I would need 80 days. That’s with a full staff, using all my machines.”
As many restaurants have become more casual in their food and clientele, so too have their kitchens. It’s becoming rarer for chefs to wear tall, pleated hats and crisp, white jackets anymore; instead, they opt for baseball caps and T-shirts. It’s a trend of which the unabashedly old-school Buzon is not a fan.”The younger chefs today, without taking away from their knowledge, they lack the professional look of a chef.”
“Chefs are like dentists; you wouldn’t go see a dentist that was dressed like I am here,” he says, gesturing to his workday attire. “Cleanliness is very, very important. … I respect even places like McDonald’s, because at least they have uniforms and look professional in their own way.”
At 63 years old, Buzon is still looking to grow the company; he figures he has “two good years” left in him. The company recently went national, distributing its products through food industry giants Sysco and Gordon Food Service. But Buzon has other goals; he hopes to dig Demagny’s original pleating machine out of the furnace room and start up a small-run line of deluxe hats for executive chefs, featuring 48 pleats instead of the usual 24.
Whatever happens, though, it will happen in Edmonton if Buzon has anything to say about it, with the help of the staff he has built around him, some of whom have been with the company since 1997.
“Edmonton is a marvelous city as far as I’m concerned – besides the winter being a little bit too long,” he says with a laugh. “But from May to the end of October, there’s no better city to live in than Edmonton anywhere in the world. … I would not trade Edmonton for all the tea in China.”