PolkaPants Founder Maxine Thompson Talks Fashion and Function
Ahead of FOOD XX, chef and PolkaPants founder Maxine Thompson sits down with us to discuss her female-focussed brand as well as her favourite food memories.
When chef and designer Maxine Thompson grew tired of being uncomfortable in baggy, unflattering unisex chef trousers, she created PolkaPants, a fashionably functional alternative for female chefs. With a foot in both the food and fashion industries, Thompson was the perfect person to create this niche product, and named her company after a pair of beloved polka dot trousers she first made when she studied fashion design that she wore whilst working as a freelance chef.
Female chefs are increasing in the industry and PolkaPants is a brand that allows them to perform at their best in kitchens all over the world, and look great while doing it. Thompson is one of the speakers at the 2019 FOOD XX Symposium and Awards, which celebrates women in the food industry. We caught up with her to find out more about PolkaPants, her menu recommendations and the most memorable dish she's ever tasted.
You studied fashion design while working as a freelance chef. Which industry were you more partial to when you were younger?
I always dreamt of working in the fashion industry. I was really interested in fabrics and textile design, so was drawn to the fashion world. My mum had her own company that made skydiving suits specifically for women (until then, women were flying in men’s suits, which were not great for areo-dynamics!). My first job was to help her make screens for bespoke screen print designs, unpicking seams and stuffing plastic grips into sleeves. I’ve always loved sewing. Like cooking, I find it the best way to switch off my brain and really think things through – or think about nothing.
If you were a food or a recipe, what would you be?
We played a game once while on a road trip, deciding what fruit or vegetable each of our friends and family members would be. My twin sister was a pineapple (sweet and delicious, but if you have too much you get really bad acid burn in your stomach), my mum was a tomato (they are the best and basically hold the food world together), and my sister said my brother-in-law was a potato (he's boring but you can live off him forever). She then proceeded to tell me that I was a pear, because when you first taste a pear, you aren’t very sure of it (too hard? too soft?). But then, one day, you get a really good one, and it becomes your favourite fruit. So I would be a pear (a really good pear, I hope!).
What's the most memorable dish you've ever tasted?
Chawanmushi – a traditional Japanese steamed savoury egg custard. It’s typically filled with prawns, gingko nuts, steamed fish cakes, shiitake mushrooms and spring onions. I can be a bit strange with eggy savoury custards, so I was very skeptical about trying this dish, but I did and I loved it.
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And your favourite item of clothing?
There are so many. I have so many pieces that I’ve had for years and only wear occasionally, but they instantly teleport me to another time and place in my life. If my house was on fire and I had to grab one item, it would be my mum’s vintage sequin leggings from the '80s. They weigh about 10kg but they are just incredible and make me feel like a mermaid (or superhero) when I put them on.
What moment made you decide to create PolkaPants?
There was never one big light bulb moment – it was more of the development of an idea. The idea came about when I was working in a restaurant in Tasmania, Australia, in 2013. The restaurant did 100 covers a night with the choice of an eight or 10 course tasting menu that changed every day. With only three of us in the kitchen, the days were long, hard and fast, and service was hot and sweaty. I couldn't for the life of me find a pair of trousers that were cool, comfortable and durable enough to work in for 14 hours a day. I went through SO many different pairs of store-bought trousers (I even tried cooking in high-waisted tight jeans one night, and almost passed out I was so hot and uncomfortable!). None of the trousers I tried fit the bill, they would either lose their shape, a button would fall off, the crotch would split or the fabric would bleed onto my chef whites when I was scrubbing down at the end of the night. I was fed up with spending money on unsuitable products, so I took matters into my own hands and started to make my own.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The amount of incredible food-obsessed women all around the world who I have had the pleasure of meeting, either via social media or email, who have since become good friends. It’s been such an amazing adventure and I feel so lucky to have new friends around the world, who are all bonded together by the PolkaPants community.
If you could change one aspect of your job, what would that be?
I’d love to have a few more members of staff on my team. We are currently a super small team and a lot of things are slow-moving because we don’t have enough time or man power to action as much as we would like, when we want to. But it’s growing and we are hoping to grow our team significantly this year.
What advice to you have for women who are starting their careers as chefs or in fashion?
Get ready for the biggest emotional rollercoaster of your life. Everyone says that starting a business is hard, that it’s expensive, it’s stressful and it’s tiring. All of these things are correct. It’s also immensely rewarding, exciting, inspiring and satisfying. Basically, every day is different physically, mentally, financially and emotionally, and you need to be able to deal with each day as it comes.
What's your current favourite drink?
Champagne! You’ll be pretty hard pushed to hear me ever say no to a glass of champagne. It makes any time of the day or any occasion a cause for celebration.
Which part of the world should every serious food-lover visit?
Of all the places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit, Japan! My older sister has lived there for four years and whenever I go there, my mind is blown away by the food. It’s so much more than sushi and raw food. Every city/ town/prefecture has its own unique food culture and traditions. Every mouthful is an excursion for your palate.