The head chef is often the most oddly dressed person in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant. He or she starts with black and white houndstooth pants, to which is added a white chef’s coat, apron, and toque blanche – the tall, white hat with pleats all the way around.
From a practical standpoint, it seems that chefs could do so much better. And as for comfort, there are better ways to dress for a long shift in a hot kitchen. But rest assured that the chef’s uniform did not come about as the product of a random accident. There is both tradition and purpose behind, explains Utah-based Alsco.
Alsco, a company that instituted uniform rental services back in the late 19th century, says that the modern chef’s uniform is steeped in tradition. The restaurant industry holds on to the uniform partly due to that tradition but also partly due to the prestige it brings to the kitchen.
The Parts of the Uniform
Black and white houndstooth pants are the go-to choice when putting together a traditional chef’s uniform. History doesn’t record any specific purpose for these pants except to protect the legs. They might just as well have been made with a solid fabric rather than the houndstooth pattern, but it is what it is. No one really knows why the houndstooth look was chosen. Perhaps the pattern hides stains?
Next is the chef’s coat. This is a double-breasted coat with buttons on both breasts. It is typically made of a very thick fabric as well. It was designed to protect chefs against hot stoves and ovens, knives and other implements, and spills. The chef’s coat is a heavy coat intended to accommodate the many dangers of the kitchen.
Next comes the apron. It was always intended to protect the chef from the waist to the knees. It protects against spills, hot surfaces, and wayward implements. Aprons used to have pockets in them for the purposes of carrying around the chef’s most important utensils.
Last but not least is the toque. The practical purpose of the hat is to protect against hair falling into food. As for why it is so tall, history suggests that position used to be denoted by height. The taller the hat, the higher one’s position in the kitchen. History also suggests that the pleats represent all of the different ways a professionally trained chef knows to prepare an egg.
Prestige in the Kitchen
It is easy to understand the purpose for each part of the chefs uniform in the context of its history. Back in the 16th century, when the toque was first introduced, commercial kitchens were a lot more dangerous than they are today. The modern kitchen is a much safer environment that does not require nearly the same level of protection. So why do four and five-star restaurants cling to the traditional chef’s uniform?
Some say it is because of the prestige that comes with it. Fine cooking is a centuries-old art that takes a lot of time and effort to learn. Master chefs put many, many years into perfecting the art, and most will tell you they continue to learn throughout their careers.
As the thinking goes, chefs deserve a special uniform that denotes the status they have achieved within their profession. Of course, there is also the tradition to think about. As much as today chefs are open to experimentation and innovation, much of what they know as cooks has thousands of years of history behind it.
They’ve got a good thing going. Is there any reason to change it?