The coat, the pants, the hat – all part of any highly recognizable uniform. These three pieces can send many messages simply based on their appearance. Popularly considered one of the most iconic uniform pieces, the chef hat is shrouded in mystery yet exudes power and prestige.
The history of this one piece of memorable attire is slim and disputed, although there are several theories and many rumors! There are two basic schools of thought on the original inspiration for the modern toque blanche.
Some say it all started in 7th century B.C. in Assyria. Rumor tells us cooks in royal households were poisoning kings because they were so unhappy with the cook’s life. So, one wise king in an attempt to prevent his own poisoning requested that the cooks wore pleated cloth headdresses much like his own. He hoped these headpieces would make the cooks feel important and happy enough not to try and kill him.
Others argue the true inspiration came during the 1500’s in the Byzantine Empire. At this time artists and philosophers sought refuge from the Barbarians in Greek monasteries, where they became cooks. As cooks, they wore similar headdresses to the priests they served.
No matter which story you believe, most agree that Marie-Antoine Careme is responsible for the tall, white, pleated look of the toque blanche we see today. In the 1800’s he inserted stiff cardboard into a soft cap to make it tall. He was also the first to use different heights in hats to indicate kitchen rank. The number of pleats on a chef’s toque came to signify skill level. It is often said that, traditionally, 100 pleats was equal to the number of ways a chef could prepare an egg.
In the United States around the 1980’s the culinary scene began to see self-expression and branding become a trend for chefs. While the toque is still a symbol of authority and knowledge today, it also portrays cleanliness and is useful in kitchen sanitary practices.
Today chefs sport a wide variety of chef hats in the kitchen.
- Toque Blanche – traditional, white, tall and stiff
- Flared Toque Hat – flops to one side, comes in variety of colors
- Beanie – fits close to head and fitted with back tie or elastic
- Beret – short, flat version of the toque often worn by pizza-makers
- Skull Cap – similar look to tying a bandana over one’s head
- Baseball Cap – typically printed with restaurant logo
A chef’s choice in hat says a lot about his or her personal style as well as his or her connection to tradition.