In every profession, you'll find those who care about flaunting style on the job. Even the most mundane accessory is a chance to make a statement without words. Jonny "Coffin" Edwards, whom we profiled recently in the People issue, knows this well. Since the mid-'90s, his company Coffin Case has made coffin-shaped guitar cases that musicians -- especially punk and metal rockers -- adore for their anguished, anti-establishment connotations.
The cases became so popular that Edwards created smaller versions. Not for instruments, necessarily, but whatever the owner desired. Maybe makeup, paints or a tattoo kit, Edwards thought. Chef Jet Tila saw the case and thought: knives.
"I got tired of using toolkits," Tila said when we spoke at the Charleston, his new restaurant. They seemed drab in their pure practicality. "I needed something to show my personality."
We caught Tila at a busy moment -- serving gnocchi and linguine at a one-night revival of Evan Kleiman's recently closed Angeli Caffe -- but he dashed to the kitchen and retrieved the case. He propped it on the bar, wiped a chocolate smudge (from Kleiman's bread pudding) off the black exterior and flipped open the latches. Pliers, at least five knives and a Kiwi brand peeler from Thailand. All rested against a soft, blood-red velvet interior.
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Tila, known for the Thai and pan-Asian cooking that he brought to Wazuzu in Las Vegas several years ago, opened the Charleston in late March. It veers away from the Asian styles he's prepared at L.A. cooking classes, or on Iron Chef ("Battle Seaweed"). The menu instead features American comfort food, such as macaroni and cheese, wings, burgers and fries.
The restaurant aims for a lounge-y, Jazz Age vibe -- imagine Josephine Baker, whose portrait graces a wall, dancing the Charleston -- which may seem far removed from the '70s and '80s punk and metal scenes that inspired Edwards to create Coffin Case. But in both eras, musicians broke boundaries and challenged expectations. Not unlike many chefs.
Tila said he wants to be the first chef to use a coffin-shaped knife case. Have his colleagues noticed it? "Big time," he said. So watch out for more chefs toting their tools in mini-coffins. As if we needed another reason to think of chefs as rock stars.