Chefs have been wearing the same traditional outfit for years. It consists of chequered pants, a double-breasted jacket and a chef’s hat called a toque. Owing to their uniform, they are one of the most recognizable professions. But as with most uniforms, the origin remains somewhat mysterious.
The white double-breasted jacket is for practical reasons. The thick cotton is to protect the chef from the heat of the stove. Originally the buttons where made out a material that couldn’t burn either. The reasoning behind the style of the jacket is that double-breasted jackets can be reversed to hide stains.
The chequered pants serve a similar purpose as the jacket. The pattern, known as a hound’s tooth chequered pattern, creates a camouflage to hide stains and splashes. Most chefs opt for a half apron that covers them from the waist down.
The reason for the toque is not as straight forward. There are many theories surrounding the use of the tall hat. It is said that the hat has been around since the 16th Century, in the days before extractor fans and proper ventilation. After several months of frying and cooking, fat would congeal on the ceiling. To protect themselves from the dripping mess, Chefs created a crude version of the modern-day toque and were able to walk untroubled around their kitchens.
Another theory dating from the 16th Century concerns artisans, including chefs, who were considered the “free thinkers” of society. Artisans were often persecuted, imprisoned or executed because of their views and sought sanctuary at monasteries for safety. For the sake of concealment, they wore similar outfits to the priests, which included tall hats. In order to tell them apart, the priests wore black hats while the chefs wore white.
According to another theory, it is possible that the toque originated in France. French chefs wore a stocking cap known as a casque a meche. It is said that this inspired western chefs to design their own version. The colour of the casque a meche indicates a French chef’s rank. In western societies, it is the height of a hat that shows the chef’s rank.
The height ranking system came from an 18th Century chef called Marie-Antoine Careme. His hat was no less than 18 inches tall. Marie-Antoine decided that white indicated cleanliness in the kitchen and so declared that all hats should be white, as it was more appropriate. It is possible that the rest of the chefs’ uniform became white as a result of this.
The numbers of pleats in the toque are used as a status symbol amongst chefs. The pleats represent the number of ways a chef can prepare an egg. The highest number of pleats is 100. That might seem impossible to most people who only know of simple egg recipes such as boiled, poached, scrambled and fried. But for a chef there is also soufflé, custard, egg-drop-soup, French toast, egg in a basket, pickled and egg benedict to name a few.
A chef’s outfit is designed to show rank and status in the kitchen. With the combination of height and pleats in the toque, you can identify the chefs and cooks in almost any kitchen. There are a variety of practical elements included in the outfit, but when you are working with about ten other cooks in a bustling kitchen, you need to know who the boss is. With orders coming in and waiters rushing about the place, you not only need to know who the boss is, but you need to know it quickly.