January 6, 2016

A History Of The Chef's Hat

The chef's hat, or toque, has a long and rich history.

The chef’s hat, or toque, has a long and rich history.

In the kitchen, most chefs wear a number of different figurative hats, easily bounding between stirring, mincing and other cooking tasks. But chefs only wear one actual hat, and that’s an important distinction. That’s because the hat a chef wears says a lot about who they are, their style, their level of expertise and so much more.

If you’re still in the middle of a culinary arts program, now is the perfect time to see just what hat you may one day end up donning:

It’s called a what?
A chef’s hat is officially called a toque, which is Arabic for hat. While the term has existed for a few thousand years, the French popularized the word when referring to a chef’s hat, according to Culinary Anyone. By the 1800s, the hat became known as the toque blanche, or white hat. So, why was white chosen? As the legend goes, the personal chef of Charles Talleyrand, who served as the first French prime minister in 1815, believed that white was the most hygienic of all the colors. The Reluctant Gourmet uncovered a similar tale in which Antonin Carem, an early pioneer of the grande cuisine cooking style, felt that white helped purvey a sense of cleanliness in the kitchen.

Why a toque in the first place?
In her book “Passion of a Foodie,” author Heidemarie Vos dispels the notion that hats were used simply to keep a chef’s hair out of his face or the food. Instead, long before the French adopted the hats, one popular origin story dates back to circa 146 BCE, when the Byzantine Empire invaded Greece. When the invasion forces landed, Greek chefs fled to nearby monasteries for protection, eventually wearing the garb of the monks to fit in. That included a large stovepipe hat. Even after the Byzantines were driven back, Greek chefs continued to wear the hats as a form of rebellion and a sign of solidarity. It’s perhaps that symbolism and sense of fraternity, Vos argued, that led other chefs, including the French, to adopt the hats in their own uniform.

What’s with the pleats?
Pleated chef’s hats have a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, pleats add a certain dimension of fashion to the hat, instilling a certain class or professionalism in most restaurants. However, as the Reluctant Gourmet pointed out, pleats also serve a more subtle purpose. In the early days of the toque blanche, pleats would often represent how many recipes a chef had mastered. So, a chef with 100 pleats may know 100 different ways to boil an egg or prepare a chicken. While hats nowadays don’t symbolize quite the same thing, more pleats – even if it’s just three or four – still demonstrate a chef’s level of experience.

Does the height of the hat matter?
Much like with pleats, the significance of the hat’s height as changed rather drastically over the years. In the 1800s, the taller the hat was, the more important or knowledgeable the chef was. As the Reluctant Gourmet pointed out, Carem once reportedly wore a hat that was 18 inches tall – supported in part by pieces of cardboard – to demonstrate his role as the head of his kitchen. These days, though, most chefs wear hats that are only 9 to 12 inches tall. However, height still does play a role. In her book “Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession,” author Amy Trubek said that toque hats are usually preserved for kitchen elite and not prep cooks or dishwashers.

So what do chefs wear nowadays?
Over the years, chefs have adopted other, more functional forms of headwear. These days, you’re more likely to see a chef wearing a skull cap, a simple hair net or even a baseball cap. Yet from time to time, depending on the kitchen, you’ll still find the toque, that regal symbol of the culinary industry’s long and storied history.

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