The iconic tall, white chef’s hat has an interesting history that dates back to the 16th century. Its function is pretty prosaic – stopping the chef’s hair from falling into the food or becoming entangled in equipment – but its symbolism is far from ordinary. A chef’s hat is officially called a toque, from the Arabic word for hat. In 1800s France, the tall, pleated hat became known as the Toque Blanche, literally white hat. There are differing stories as to who suggested it should be white, but all agree that it was because white symbolises cleanliness and hygiene – obviously two important qualities of a good chef.
The pleats in the hat are not just there to make them look stylish, although that is an element. In the 1800s in France, in the early days of the toque balance, each pleat was said to represent a recipe mastered by the chef, so the more pleats, the more skilled the chef. Sometimes, the pleats indicated a level of expertise with a single ingredient for example eggs or beef. So, a chef with a hundred pleats may have known a hundred ways to prepare an egg or serve beef. Although not quite the same today, more pleats do denote a higher position in modern kitchens.
The height of the hat is also symbolic. In France in the late 19th century a famed chef, Antonin Careme wore a hat that was 45cm tall, supported with cardboard to keep it upright, to denote his status as head chef. The height denoted not only seniority but expertise. Modern chefs’ hats don’t reach those lofty heights with a range in length of 20cm to 30cm. Although not as essential an element of indicating seniority in the kitchen these days, they pleated chef’s hat does still denote a chef’s professionalism with only qualified chefs donning them.
Although headwear in contemporary kitchens has become more flexible with chefs wearing a range of items from skullcaps to bandanas and even the odd baseball cap, the Toque Blanche remains the iconic symbol of the professional chef.