The New Look Chef
Long before The Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen, chefs toiled in their kitchens under a veil of obscurity. There were no celebrity chefs, no commercials featuring prominent chefs hawking products, or chefs hosting their own cooking shows. Chefs worked 12-16 hour days writing menus, preparing food, and instructing their protégés on the how, where, and what parts of creating innovative dishes. Chefs were beloved by their loyal guests, but they certainly were not the media darlings that they have become today.
When it Started to Change
Chef anonymity began to change during the 1980s, when two chefs became media sensations after the release of their seminal cookbooks. Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck were the forerunners to today’s celebrity chefs. Both chefs ran highly regarded restaurants and both chefs mentored rising stars that would eventually make their own marks in the restaurant industry. Prudhomme and Puck began appearing on popular morning news shows to demonstrate their cooking styles. What shined was not necessarily their cuisine, but their engaging personalities that included touches of humor, wrapped around larger than life energy and enthusiasm.
The two pioneering chefs also altered public perceptions by what they wore on a television set and in their restaurants. A new uniform that exuded class replaced dirty chef coats and tattered blue jeans. Both Prudhomme and Puck dressed with a panache that changed, albeit slowly, how chefs looked in their restaurants. The uniform consisted of a clean and pressed chef coat, stain free chef pants or black trousers, and dressy, but functional shoes. The chef’s rising celebrity status required a new look, one that Prudhomme and Puck were more than happy to promote.
The Chef Evolution
While Prudhomme and Puck blazed the trail for future chefs, it was not until the explosion of the Internet and the advent of reality based food shows that chefs became superstars. Prominent chefs are now considered on par with Hollywood starlets and charismatic male actors. Chefs has moved beyond the realm of participating in televised food challenges and into featured roles in mass media programs. However, the true chef revolution has unfolded inside of restaurants
Two factors have changed how chefs project their images. First, the popularity of open kitchens provides chefs with the opportunity to interact with guests. From running the expo window to searing tuna in a sauté pan, chefs stand mere feet away from their guests. Open kitchens have changed how an entire kitchen staff operates. Gone are the angry admonitions and in their place, more of a supportive environment. Open kitchens may have forced chefs to change their behavior, but the biggest change has been how chefs dress for their lead roles.
Not only are they food conductors in the kitchen, chefs are also the face of their restaurants. This means that before and after the busiest stretches of a shift, chefs will walk through their dining rooms and engage guests. While they may have front of the house managers, the walking chefs, as they refer to themselves, mingle with guests in the same manner as their managers. This means that chefs have made a radical change in their appearance. The popular depiction of chefs wearing sauce stained coats and torn pants has changed to chefs who wear impeccably maintained clothing.
The New Chef Uniform
While the chef uniform has gone through many transformations, the latest rendition closely mirrors what we have seen over the past 20 years. While the uniform remains the same, the appearance standards have not.
The white double-breasted chef’s jacket should be stain free, a feat made possible by chefs being able to reverse the jacket to walk through the dining room. Chefs still receive protection from boiling liquids by the jacket’s thick cotton cloth. The black and white patterns on chef pants serve as a fashion statement and a useful way to hide minor stains. Pants should comprise wrinkle free material that prevents chefs from looking like they just wrestled with a bull. White represents cleanliness and chefs need to ensure that remains the standard for their work attire.
Chefs who wear aprons must replace the dirty ones used on the line with clean and pressed aprons. The chef toque should sit firm on the head, with a slight tilt to one side. Chefs should wear buffed and shined shoes when they greet guests. This means that chefs who walk through their restaurants during service will most likely have to take off their slip-resistant kitchen shoes for a pair of comfortable dress shoes. Above all, chefs who plan to interact with guests should wash their hands and comb their hair to present a favorable image.
Chief Executive Chef
Many contemporary chefs have taken a different approach to their expanding restaurant roles. These chefs entrust sous chefs to run their kitchens during service, allowing them to spend the entire shift in the dining room. Hence, there is no need for these chefs to wear chef uniforms. They can put on something more formal, similar to what they expect their front of the house managers to wear. The type of clothing chefs should wear in their dining rooms depends on the restaurant’s motif. A five-star restaurant will require a chef to don a suit and tie, while an upscale restaurant that has a casual feel allows a chef to wear informal clothing; even clothing that represents the restaurant’s theme.
The changing chef role has become an important part of many culinary school curriculums. They learn how to interact with guests and run a kitchen during the same shift. However, the students do not learn about the rapidly evolving way that chefs project themselves to their guests. Tomato sauce stained jackets and greasy chef pants are out and a clean and pressed chef uniform is in. As we move forward, the formal attire that chefs wear in their dining rooms may become the focus a GQ feature story.