Why Chefs Wear Such Hats and The Origins of The Toque

Being of the practical sort I’ve often wondered why cooks and chefs wear such tall almost silly looking hats. But of course silly is a relative statement and I’m pretty sure looking clean and hygienic are also factors. I read somewhere that during the reign of King Henry VIII. The king found a strand of hair in his soup, had the royal cook beheaded, and ordered the next chef to start wearing a hat. Now that is certainly logical, but then why not put a hairnet on? But then again hairnets most probably were not invented yet at the time. And do they have to be so tall? I mean if the chef was considerably tall won’t he keep bumping it on overhead fan hoods and fluorescent lighting? Or if he had to go take something out of the refrigerator for example and he has to stick his head in there to find something, wouldn’t it be in the way?

During the course of this curious research I found out that style, rank and aristocracy dictates as much on the fashion runway as it does on the kitchen aisle.

Overheard…

“It’s part of kitchen sanitary practice among other reasons, but honestly I think these guys wear their toque because it gives them a sense of power over everyone else in the kitchen, yeah that’s my opinion coz maybe I’m jealous of these power trippers. I’m kidding of course.” – Michael, a Culinary School Administrator jokes.

In another, a chef laughingly relates “a professional kitchen gets really hot, the tall hat traps cool air and keeps the head cool, while the rest of the body suffers.”

Hmm… that is almost logical… Upon further reading, I found…

A Few Subsequent Tales of Yore

Technically, a Chef’s hat is called a Toque (pron.: /ˈtk/ or /ˈtɒk/). It is a type of hat with a narrow brim or no brim at all. Etymologically, the word toque is Arabic for “round hat”.  Toques have been used throughout the ages, by followers of the Muslim faith, by the Pope, and by modern day equestrians among others.

 

Toques

The Rise of The Toque Blanche

Chef's White HatEventually, evolution found it’s way to the French   who popularized it to the term Toque Blanche,  which means, “white hat”. Although before coining the latter, the French used the term “casque a meche” or stocking cap, in which its color denoted the rank of the cook or chef in its royal kitchens. It is said that the personal chef of Charles Talleyrand, then prime minister of France, was the first to insist on the hats to be white in color to factor in the hygienic appearance.

Hence with the color established, they were now left with the predicament of how to determine ones rank in the kitchen. It is then believed that the first internationally renowned celebrity chef of the 1800’s- Marie-Antoine Careme, exponent of Grande Cuisine, was the first to put forward that toques should be of different heights to indicate rank. The higher your rank the taller your toque. And of course grandiosely, Careme’s toque blanche was 18 inches tall.

Pleats and Prowess

As if our ancestors weren’t content with that, amusingly the number of pleats in a toque is also a symbol of ones skillful prowess in the kitchen. 100 pleats in a toque is equal to the number of ways a chef can prepare an egg. Now that’s a lot of eggs for one chef!

The early 19th century saw yet another revolution in chef’s hats. With the consequential growth of the restaurant industry, kitchens gradually became bigger, better equipped and it’s workforce more and more complex. Chefs and cooks now fashioned different styles of the white hat according to their food specializations.

Makes sense to me! I mean with so many hats in there… if I were maître d’… Who would you think would be who? Doing what? And for whom?

 

- Samantha Samonte

Samantha Samonte essentially writes about cool careers, lifestyles, cuisines and dishes for the culinary set. She spends the rest of her time living life to the fullest in the company of her laptop exercising her creative writing prowess.

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