Ever wondered why chefs wear white robes? And do you know what their tall white hats are for? Well, wonder no more. Here are the answers to all the how's and why's of chefs' uniforms.
How it began. There are many myths about how the chefs' uniforms came to be, but according to expert chefs themselves, they owe their uniforms to history. The 16th century was not good to chefs. As 'learned men' with a lot of radical ideas, they were considered heretics and were often imprisoned or persecuted. To escape death or torture, chefs sought refuge in the Orthodox Church amongst priests in the monasteries. They wore attires resembling priests' garbs - gray robe with tall caps - to hide themselves. That saw the beginning of chefs' uniforms.
When life got better for chefs in the 1800's, they redesigned chefs' uniforms into immaculate white - the traditional color that denotes cleanliness. Chef Marie-Antoine Careme led this 'white revolution.' He also thought of creating different hat sizes to differentiate chefs from cooks. The more seasoned chefs got to wear taller hats (more formally called toques), while the new cooks were given the shorter hats (more like caps). And did you know that there are exactly 100 pleats on a traditional toque? It represents the 100 ways by which a chef can cook an egg!
Keeping tradition. The classic chef's uniform has not evolved all that much over the last two centuries partly because chefs wanted to keep their tradition, but mostly because of the uniform's extreme practicality and safety features.
Chef's jackets are still double-breasted so it can easily be reversed to hide stains. Chefs' uniforms are still usually made of a double layer of cotton, which serves as insulation against the intense heat of the stove.
Chefs' uniforms still feature unique 'knotted cloth buttons,' never the standard plastic ones. This is because unlike plastic, cloth will withstand contact with hot pots, pans and other heavy equipment. And yes, even those dizzying checkered pants have a practical use - they camouflage minor spills and stains.
The toque is still worn as a traditional part of the chefs' uniform, but they have evolved to be more practical. As early as the 1950's, paper toques were already invented - these toques still looked like cloth, but chefs can easily discard them once they are dirty.
Jazzing it up. You will often see younger chefs wearing hipper versions of the classic chefs' uniform, as attempts to modernize the profession and also express their individuality. More colorful and personalized chef's outfits started in the 1980's, when a legion of chefs and cooks began to wear non-traditional "fun" attires. The new uniforms had very varied designs, from comical ones like wildly patterned outfits with chili peppers or onions, to less edgier ones like pinstriped baggy pants.
But the first efforts to break out of the traditional white chef's uniform started even before the 1980's, in the person of chef-philanthropist Alexis Soyer. His wardrobe was one of the most eclectic in the history of chef's uniforms. He used to wear eccentric red velvet berets in place of the toque, and his jackets resembled magician's jackets, cut along the bias with huge cuffs and lapels.
Some traditional chefs were offended by what they called 'outrageous' outfits, but the trend carried on. Chef's uniforms were only tamed in the 1990's when most chefs went back to the classic cut, but still retained individualized touches either in their neckerchiefs or through the tasteful little prints on their jackets.
It does not look like chefs uniforms will radically change in the near future. The practicality and functionality of the classic cut is hard to beat, after all. And to the public's eye, a chef will always be in pristine white jacket and matching toque.