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History of Chef Hats and Toques

Updated on February 18, 2008

Chefonaut's History of the Chef Hat, and other Chef Trivia

Ever wonder why chefs wear hats? Well it's one of those questions that's got a few different answers. I have collected here from the depths of the internet and the public library, a brief history of the chef hat, or "toque," and uniform. This is not a definitive history of the toque (pronounced "tock," in your best French accent) but simply a collection of historical trivia. Believe whichever toque theory you choose!

I have also provided some resources on types of chef hats, and a link to obtain your very own toque. Please use this information responsibly and do not purchase a hat like the one pictured above!

Ancient Chef Hats

We can only imagine...

The farthest back I could trace the origins of the chef hat was to ancient Assyria.

Since the dawn of one person cooking for another, masters have been poisoned by their cooks. A noble would give his cook a crown-like hat to wear (minus the jewels of course) in order to make the cook feel he was appreciated and somehow on the same level with his master. This stroking of the cook's ego supposedly thwarted many potential homicides.

I have read this history in several articles but no one has provided a picture of what these lovely ancient hats may have looked like! I will use my imagination and hope that they were replete with rich Assyrian patterns.

Medieval Origins

The oldest recorded evidence of what we think of as a chef hat dates back 1400 years or so, to 7th Century Greece (A.D.). Cooks often learned to read in order to increase their knowledge of recipes and techniques, so by this point they were considered learned men. This is why the word "epicurean," has connotations of fine food. The word originally meant simply "learned."

The early chefs' learnedness only increased when they took refuge in monasteries of the Greek Orthodox Church to avoid persecution along with other intellectuals (artists, philosophers, etc.). The refugees adopted the outfit of the monks, in order to blend in with them at a distance; the monks' robes and black caps were recognized by everyone.

The cooks spent a lot of time in the kitchen during their stay, inventing new recipes and eventually adopting a white uniform as not to offend God by imitating their pious black-clad peers.

Baroque Origins

Another version of this theory takes place later, during the Baroque period in Europe. In another age of wild accusations and persecutions, 17th Century artists, chefs and other learned folk sought refuge, this time in the Catholic cathedrals of cities. This time they wore tall white hats to blend in with clergy (who wore light grey), enabling them to safely leave work and sneak off to a church.

Culinary practitioners of the day may have been persecuted because of new ideas in cooking (witchcraft?), or because of the use of unusual foods. Hey, it was 400 years ago, you could be excommunicated or burned at the stake for almost anything!

Cooks fell into the category of artists by some definitions, who were a notoriously shifty breed by Baroque standards. But our food artists were watched even more carefully since their employers actually ate the art. A bad painting never killed anyone, but an undercooked pheasant drizzled with stewed elderberries might do the trick.

Henry VIII

Off With His Uncovered Head!

Another chef hat theory of yore is Henry VIII's fabled execution of a cook who lost a hair in Henry's soup. He was beheaded and the next cook hired on was ordered to wear a hat. He complied, of course.

The Rise of The Toque

and Division of Labor in the Kitchen

Not until the 19th Century did the chef take his modern name "chef" (meaning "chief" in French) and his more modern hat. The increased prosperity and commercialism of the 18th and 19th Centuries put private chefs and restaurant chefs in high demand, and chefs began to develop their own culture. The first celebrity chefs were in the making!

For the past hundred years, chefs had been wearing stocking caps, or the "casque a meche" in varying colors according to rank. M. Boucher did away with these greasy floppy hats in the 18th Century, stating that only a white clad kitchen staff could appear sanitary.

Marie Antoine Careme (pictured at right) who is credited with perfecting the art of Modern French Cuisine, further standardized the white uniform to create a look of cleanliness and stature. He also standardized the double-breasted coat (you can unbutton and re-layer the front when it gets spattered) and tall white toque, along with different hats for different stations in the kitchen.

The height of your hat usually corresponded with your rank. Sauce cooks and bakers wore little more than a cap, the supervising chefs had a beret or a small pleated toque, and the head chef donned a towering toque of starched white, with pleats numbering the ways he knew how to cook an egg (up to 100 pleats). This "hat hierarchy" continues in some form in kitchens today.

Legend has it Careme's hat was 18 inches high, stiffened with cardboard inside, and sported all 100 pleats. He deserved to be more than a little proud of himself -- he had been dumped in Paris by his parents at the age of eight, smack in the middle of the French Revolution -- he got a job as a kitchen boy, and made his living in a kitchen from that day on.

An Outmoded Floppy Hat (left) and a Modern Toque (right)

An Outmoded Floppy Hat (left) and a Modern Toque (right)
An Outmoded Floppy Hat (left) and a Modern Toque (right)

M.A. Escoffier's Professional Chefs

Jackets and Ties For All Occasions!

At the turn of the century, M. A. Escoffier, known as "The Chef of Kings and King of Chefs," followed in Careme's footsteps and made the kitchen even more streamlined and organized.

Escoffier added the chef d'partie position which is still in use today, created over 10,000 recipes, and invented the a la carte concept which made fine dining more affordable to the masses. He also helped to create an image of professionalism for chefs, by requesting that his employees wear jackets and ties when off duty, stop smoking, drinking and swearing at work, and he encouraged them to obtain higher education.

The attire worn by these chefs was still much the same as in Careme's day, but Escoffier's attitude helped to turn the uniform into something people respected, not just a drunken working man's outfit that happened to include a funny hat (we'll get back to hats in a minute).

Escoffier opened restaurants in France, England, and worked all over the western world, taking his ideals along with him and transforming our perception of the "chef."

Escoffier's Team of White-Clad Professionals. Ritz Carlton, Paris 1911.

Escoffier's Team of White-Clad Professionals.  Ritz Carlton, Paris 1911.
Escoffier's Team of White-Clad Professionals. Ritz Carlton, Paris 1911.

20th Century Chefs

Through the early 20th Century there were not many big changes in the world of chef hats or uniforms. TV shows and cartoon illustrations continued to portray them in white, with either a stiff toque or a floppy beret. The stereotype of the comical, portly Italian chef with a curly moustache, who cooks nothing but spaghetti became popularized by cartoons and commercials.

Today's Restaurateurs

Chefs in Charge

As big cities became more cosmopolitan, and more people ate out more often, the professional chef came back into demand. In the past forty years chefs have come a long way. By the 1980s chefs wore whatever hat they liked, from a skullcap to a toque, or even a baseball cap, and donned loud colored coats, brightly patterned kerchiefs, and sometimes, ridiculous "Hammer pants."

The chef has gone from being a suspicious employee, to a persecuted artist, to an ethnic stereotype -- and is finally viewed today as professional and a businessman.

Chefs, you've come a long way. Put on the tallest toques you can find!

Funny Chef Videos

Thanks to...

This article comes to you courtesy of Culinary Classics, Chicago-based manufacturer of Chef Hats and other handmade chef apparel.

Suggestions and Corrections

This article is from sources collected all over the world wide web and from the dusty corners of the public library. We welcome suggestions and corrections. If you know something we don't, bring it on! We'd like to have as complete a history as we can. Contact chefonaut@pwim.com.

If you are new to chef hats and are aching for more info, check out some of the sites we visited for our research:

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