Have you ever wondered just why it is that chefs wear exactly the same uniform all over the civilized world? That tall hat or toque, the checked pants, the necktie, the apron and the double breasted jacket are all instantly recognizable.
Obviously safety, hygiene and history all have their parts to play. Take the white double breasted jacket. Non flammable, four layers of cloth for protection from heat and boiling liquids (and it’s five if you add on the apron). The thick knotted buttons built to withstand any battering from hot pans, all very safety conscious. But hygienic as well, that spattering of fat can disappear like magic in an instant when unbuttoned and reversed. And the military styling? Well that stems from hundreds of years ago, when chefs were merely the servants of kings and could be called into battle with him at any time.
The toques' origins are another matter. Some say they were founded in Ancient Assyria 1000bc when the rulers were so scared of being poisoned that they elevated their chefs in stature giving them un-jeweled crowns to wear. Other scholars prefer the 7th C, saying that chefs, along with other intellectuals of the time, sought refuge from persecution in the Greek Orthodox monasteries. The chefs assumed the same clothing as the monks, even to the priest’s tall hats, only in white for working in the kitchens. Others blame Henry VIII for finding a hair in his food, having his chef beheaded and ensuring all of his future chefs wore hats. Then, in France in the early 1800’s, along came Marie Antoine Careme. He is renowned for standardizing the uniform, giving chefs tall hats, how tall on seniority and other cooks flat caps. Careme himself is said to have worn a hat 18 inches in height, with 100 folds denoting how many ways he was able to cook an egg. Well he was one of the first celebrity chefs as we know them today.
But it was Escoffier, in the latter part of the 19thC/early 20th C, who elevated cooking into a profession and with that the respect for the uniform. Along with the toque and jacket - the hounds tooth checkered pants to camouflage any stray stains and the necktie (originally there to soak up perspiration, but now more for decorative purposes) completes the traditional chef’s outfit. Nowadays however, many chefs forego this look and prefer to stamp their own personality on the appearance of their uniform with various patterns and colors.
However the traditional uniform will no doubt survive and many a chef will give thanks to Escoffier for the status held and pride felt by donning their toque.
Pictures thanks to flickr Greensquareloosier, Smwarnke4. NNDB and Disney's Ratatouillemovies.