Chefs are proud people and their passion transcends the kitchen. Part of their pride lies in the chef’s uniform which is steeped in history has more to it than meets the eye.
The traditional chef’s uniform, or chef;s whites as it’s commonly known as, includes a toque (traditional hat), white double-breasted jacket and houndstooth-patterned black and white pants.
The jacket’s material serves a very practical purpose and that is to protect the chef from oven and stove heat, as well as splattering of boiling liquids. The jacket can also be reversed to hide stains.
Knotted cloth buttons were commonly used to withstand frequent washing and contact with hot liquids, while the white buttons signify cleanliness and is generally worn by highly visible chefs. Traditionally white buttons signified apprentice chefs, while black buttons were worn for seniority by qualified chefs.
The chef’s hat or toque, dates back to the 16th century and different heights indicate rank in the kitchen. The 100 folds of the toque are said to represent the many different ways a chef knows to cook an egg!
Today’s top Chef’s wear toques approximately 12 inches tall, while apprentices and amateurs have eight-inch hats. Harold McGee, in the Curious Cook, a book on kitchen science and lore, favors a simple baseball-style cap over the toque for at least one reason: oil droplets rising from a pan will fall and settle on the inside of a Chef’s glasses, unless the Chef is wearing a visored cap.
Supportive, quality and protective footwear is an often an overlooked part of the uniform, but also a very important. Hard leather shoes with slip-resistant soles are recommended, both for protection and support and sneakers are not allowed in the kitchen – although comfortable, they do not provide the necessary protection from dropped sharp objects or hot liquids.
The necktie was originally used in unbearably hot kitchens to catch and absorbed facial perspiration. It also had a medical purpose, keeping the neck and throat areas protected from the extreme fluctuations between the stove tops and the fridge’s. If the neck got too hot then too cold, the chef could take ill. Today it still serves this function and forms a proud part of the chef’s uniform – much in the same way as a tie does in business attire.