Almost anyone who is part of our modern culture recognizes the tall white hat typically worn by chefs. It’s called a “toque blanch,” which means white hat in French, and is referred to as just a “toque” for short. There is much said about the origin, but it’s not easy to sort out the tall tales from the facts.
What is the history of the chef hat? Why do chefs don that funny looking headwear?
One theory is that the hats originated in Greek orthodox monasteries in the early Middle Ages. In an article which appeared in the Roanoke Times, “Hats Off to Chefs”, it was stated that chefs in this time period were literate (having to know how to read recipes). During the 6th century, chefs, along with other artisans, were often persecuted, imprisoned, and even executed. Edwards’ book, A Pageant of Hats: Ancient and Modern, confirms the theory. To avoid this persecution, chefs would hide among the clergy. In contrast to the similar black hats and dark clothing worn by the clergy, the chefs changed their hats to white to differentiate themselves from the priests and in hopes that the white color would appease the wrath of God.
Another theory, reported by Chef Harvey Rosen, is that the hats originated in Assyrian culture in which the head cooks wore high cloth headdress with many folds or pleats, the pleats resembling the royal crown of their master. These pleated headdresses were supposedly given to the chefs to evoke faithfulness in the cooks, since the royalty often lived in fear of conspiracy and poisoning. It was later that the hats evolved to a greater height.
At one point, the hats had 100 pleats (though today there are likely only 48 or 50). Why 100 pleats? Once again, there’s some conjecture (but hard pressed to trace the facts) that the 100 folds in the chef hat were because a good chef should know 100 different ways to cook eggs. Li Gunnison, in her article for Bon Appetite magazine, (“Why are there 100 Folds in a Chef’s Toque?”) asked for clarity on this from internationally known French chef, Jacques Pepin. Pepin claimed to easily know 100 ways to cook eggs, but did not easily know the facts about where the connection came from between the 100 folds and the 100 ways to cook eggs.
Some credit for the shape, height and color of the chef hat is also attributed to the father of classic French cuisine—Marie Antoine Careme. Careme is considered to be the “Chef of Kings and King of Chefs” and is credited with being the source for many famous French sauces, garnishes, and recipes, as well as kitchen organization and division of labor that is now part of the culinary scene. It was during the 1800’s that the King of Chefs decided that all chefs needed a specific uniform and selected white to represent cleanliness. He had his staff wear hats of various heights, with his being the tallest to show his authority. His hat, called a “casque a meche,” was 18 inches tall and had to be reinforced with cardboard to make it stand up. Even today, the height of the hat can denote who has the highest authority in the kitchen.
Straight Dope’s article, “What’s the Origin of the Chef’s Hat,” confirms that the evolution of the tall pleated chef hat likely came from several cultural origins and that separating the fact from the tall tale is not so easy. A very interesting tale is that the head chef for Henry VIII was balding, and was shedding hair at all sorts of inappropriate times and places. Purportedly, one or two of his hairs fell in the king’s soup. The balding chef was beheaded and the King requested that all chefs thereafter wear hats.
Today, no one is being beheaded, but there are strict federal and state requirements for keeping hair out of the soup. Chefs and culinary workers are required by law, Section 2-402.11 of the Food Code, US Public Health to wear “hair restraints” to keep hair from falling in the food. The hats supposedly also keep sweat from dripping where it shouldn’t drip and keep the chef’s hair out of his/her eyes. There are more choices now, in many styles, colors, and heights—classic chef hats, doo rags, cool caps, pill box chef hats, chef beanies, hairnets, and disposable paper toques—for chefs to choose from.
And there are still plenty of legends and tall tales about chef hats. Here are a few we’ve heard of.
- The height of the chef’s hat helps dissipate heat from the chef’s head.
- Chef hats act like a fan, causing the air at the bottom to rise to the top.
- The hats protect the chef’s head from bonks and bumps when he/she stands up near heavy kitchen equipment.
- The chef’s hat in the Middle Ages protected a chef from being beheaded by angry knights.
What are some of the tallest tales you’ve heard about chef hats? Leave your comments.