When people hear the word “Chef,” the image that comes to mind almost always includes the tall cloth hat referred to as a toque blanche (white hat).
Although utilitarian due to keeping hair out of food, the kind of hat a chef wears is also a statement of tradition, status and fashion. When considering the history of this, it seems impossible to separate facts from legend.
However, we do know it was the 1822 publication of M. Antonin Carême's book on restaurant work, Le Maître d'Hôtel, that began the modernization and standardization of chef's clothing, including hats for all cook staff.
Yet the tradition of wearing a hat while cooking was centuries old by the time Carêmeserved European royalty.
A number of stories about the origin of the chef's hat exist. All seem to weave together threads of truth about the chef's toque. Here are some central stories.
- Assyrian Connection. It is said that from around 1170 to 612 BC, assassination of Assyrian royalty by poisoning was common. So kings reportedly were careful about selecting chefs and treating them well.
High ranking chefs wore pleated cloth hats similar in shape to their kings' crowns. Legend says that kings granted this honor to placate chefs who wanted to be valued and differentiated from other kitchen help.
- Byzantine Disguise. The Byzantine Empire was centered on Constantinople -- now known as Istanbul, Turkey. As barbarians, or outsiders, overcame the empire at the end of the 6th century A.D., many people sought sanctuary in Greek Orthodox churches and pretended to be monks. Among these asylum seekers were cooks who reportedly dressed in priest-like robes and brimless stovepipe hats with pleated tops.
Some sources say that whereas the priests wore black, the cooks dressed in gray. This may explain why chef uniforms often were gray until the 1800s when Carême is said to have established white as the color for chefs' uniforms, because he said it represented purity in food preparation.
- Henry VIII Mandate. Another unsubstantiated yet plausible story about the origin of the toque says that Britain's King Henry VIII (1491-1547 A.D.) ordered a chef beheaded after Henry found a hair in his meal.
This seems plausible due to the king's habit of executing anyone who displeased him. One documented execution involved Richard Roose, a cook who Henry had boiled to death.
But back to the hair in Henry's food: Legend says that he ordered his next chef to wear a hat while cooking and, thus, established the use of hats to maintain hygiene.
Today, this problem is handled with less drama and solved by the much less glamorous hairnet. While seldom a fashion statement, airnets do go a long way toward freeing chefs to focus on the starring role of food instead of worrying about wayward hairs.
The quintessential chef's hat is tall, pleated, cylindrical and white. During Carême's time, the French popularized the phrase toque blanche, but toque isn't French. It is Arabic for "round hat" and is a term that may go back to royal Assyrian kitchens.
Until Carême published his book, chefs and their assistants worldwide wore many kinds of hats from berets to stocking caps. The colors of these caps also varied greatly.
Carême applied a hierarchy to hats. He suggested that head chefs wear the tallest toques with the most pleats. The more highly valued or knowledgeable a chef was, the taller his hat. In contrast, kitchen workers with less experience, lower status and in varying jobs topped their heads with shorter hats containing less pleats or no pleats at all.
Carême reportedly wore a hat 18 inches tall and stiffened with cardboard to demonstrate his role as the head of his kitchen. These days, most head chefs wear hats that are only 9 to 12 inches tall.
Aside from height, pleating of chef hats continues to symbolize experience and attainment. One frequent bit of culinary lore says that hats with 100 pleats indicate a chef's ability to please customers by cooking eggs 100 different ways. Even the magazine Bon Appétit couldn't crack open the truth of that story.
The magazine quoted the revered chef Jacques Pepin as saying, I’m familiar with the French adage that says the hundred folds represents one hundred ways to cook an egg, but I’m not sure where it comes from.
Contemporary Chef's toques
Today, hats for head chefs and other cook staff remain symbols of authority and knowledge on many levels.
Despite the hospitality industry's continuing preference for white clothing and pleated hats, some chefs worldwide choose to express their individuality through clothing that breaks away from the all-white tradition.
Few chefs still wear the iconic cloth hat, due to issues related to air circulation and cleaning. However, many continue to embrace tradition by wearing paper versions of these hats.
Regardless of which toque a chef or an assistant wears, one thing remains the same: Their headwear helps define them as a team with a long history deserving respect.