Chef’s hats are fascinating. Other than having an attention-grabbing look, they give utmost prestige and distinction to the overall appearance of a chef. Donning a chef’s hat is what a culinary aspirant dreams of. And what make these hats more fascinating are the rich and interesting stories behind them. Quite remarkable, it’s definitely worth telling.
The chef’s uniform was introduced and developed by French chefs Marie Antoine Careme and Auguste Escoffier in the early 1900s. But then, long before the emergence of the chef’s uniform, cooks already wear hats when they work in the kitchen. There are, in fact, a lot of funny accounts surrounding the origin of chef’s hats that go way back 7th century.
One particular favorite is the history of the toque (another word for chef’s hats, pronounced as ‘tock’) based on Assyrian chronicles. At a time when there were massive kitchen poisoning cases of household masters in Assyrian families, one aristocratic gentleman thought of giving his cook a crown-like hat to wear. This was done in order to increase the prestige of his cook in his kitchen. He presumed that wearing the hat would make the cook feel appreciated and somehow make him think that his position is at par with that of his master. And he presumed right. This fondling of the cooks’ ego supposedly prevented a lot of impending homicides during that period.
In the 1800s, chefs wore stocking caps, or the casque a meche. These were worn in varying colors, according to rank. It then evolved into floppy hats which were worn only in white, as white was deemed to be the only color that appears sanitary in the kitchen.
From thereon, the gradual evolution of the chef’s hat went on through the centuries, and eventually arrived at the modern chef’s hats that we see today. There was a time that the ideal toque has 100 pleats, representing the many ways that a chef can cook an egg. Famous chefs at that time bragged that they can serve their royal kings distinctive variations of egg dishes every day in a year. Nowadays, though, chef’s hats can only go to as many as 48 pleats.
If the number of pleats changed, the height of the hats did not. Chef’s hats can still go as high as 18 inches nowadays. The height of the hat corresponds with the rank of the cook in the kitchen. The Head Chef dons the most towering of all, while the supervising chefs have berets or the smaller pleated toques. The section cooks wear little hats that look no more than a baseball cap.
These days, restaurant kitchens have their own hat rankings, specifying their own hats with their specific categorization of chefs, based on the hierarchy of chefs in their own kitchen. There are so many to choose from – white chef’s hats of different lengths (11” and 13”), traditional chef hats, pillbox chef caps, chef tie-back caps, chefs mesh top skull caps, and classic baseball caps.
There. Didn’t I tell you it’s a story worth telling?