Every aspect of the kitchen -- from the positions on The Line to the bases of sauces -- has a story and an important part to play when it comes to the grand history of cooking. While you may not think twice about your pants as your shift starts, each piece of the uniform serves a specific purpose. If you’ve ever wondered why your hat is so tall, why your pants have checkers, or the fasteners on your coat aren’t buttons, read on.
Along with being known for his big hat, Marie-Antoine Careme is credited with the look of the modern chef uniform. In 1822, Marie-Antoine Careme released “Le Maitre d’Hotel Francais.” (chefs pictured above). The two chefs in the sketch are depicted wearing the toque, trousers, a double-breasted jacket, and an apron. However, it wasn’t until years later when Georges Auguste Escoffier, developer of the Brigade de cuisine, standardized the uniform.
A chef’s hat is officially called a toque, Arabic for hat. There are many stories about the invention of the chef hat which go far beyond keeping hair out of the food. The invention of the chef hat can be credited to a beheading by a king, a crown replacement, and a replacement for a military helmet. Our favorite story however is from Heidemarie Vos in Passion of a Foodie. This story involves military invasions, escape, and disguises that would make for a delicious summer blockbuster.
In a nutshell, due to their advanced cooking techniques the chefs of Ancient Greece were a sought after spoil of war. When the Byzantine Empire invaded Greece, the Greek chefs fled to nearby monasteries for protection. To blend in with the monks, the chefs disguised themselves in the monks traditional clothing, including large stovepipe hats. After the Byzantines were driven back, Greek chefs continued to wear the tall hats as a symbol of their escape. Years later when the Romans took Greece, they brought the chefs and their tall hats with them to the far corners of The Roman Empire.
The Pleats in the traditional toque are also more than a French fashion statement. The origin of the pleats came from the idea that a pleat was added when a technique was mastered. If a chef had 100 pleats, he would know 100 different recipes.
Much like pleats, the height of the hat signified how paramount and knowledgeable a chef was. The tall hat also made the chef easily recognizable across the expanse of the kitchen floor, like a general on a battlefield. According to the Reluctant Gourmet, Chef Marie-Antoine Carême (the first celebrity chef) reportedly wore a hat that was 18 inches tall.
While white may seem like a terrible color for a coat that is continuously under attack from sauces, the color is used to signify a position of power, cleanliness, and perfection. Escoffier knew that patrons needed to be reassured that their food was safe to eat and there was no better way to show that the food was prepared in a pristine environment than to revive the white jacket from Carême’s sketch. Along with looking sharp, the white color is great at deflecting heat, which is helpful when surrounded by stoves, open fires, and ovens.
Escoffier also made changes to the jacket featured in Carême’s sketch. The buttons were redesigned as French knots to allow for faster removal if you spilled something hot on yourself. The French knot design also help keep the buttons on the jacket and not in your dish.
Lastly, the double-breasted design also allows a busy chef to quickly switch the stained side to an alternate clean side when meeting guests, and these days ensures photo-readiness for a ‘Gram with food influencers. #foodporn.
Escoffier also changed the pants from Carême’s original design. The black and white houndstooth pattern was popular at the time and is still used to hide the spills and splashes of the more animated chefs.
Like a cape for your legs, the long, full apron is primarily worn for safety. The apron is designed to take the main impact of any hot liquid, which can be quickly and easily removed to protect your legs.
Throughout the years restaurants have changed; baseball hats, bandanas, and colorful coats and pants have replaced the tall hat, white jacket, and checkered pants. Despite these changes in the look, the history of the uniform connects today’s chefs with those who have cooked before them.