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The chef's hat - tool or symbol?

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

"All other variables aside, the image of a chef almost always includes one thing: a tall white hat."  Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

Does it?

My hair has been driving me mad. Just prior to each of our two lockdowns in Victoria I was about to go and get my haircut. The first time, I still could have gone but I was cautious and decided not to. After all I only expected to have to wait a few weeks before getting it cut. But this time I actually couldn't go to get it cut and it had already grown long. Now it is as long, if not longer, than I have ever had it in my life and, as I say, it is driving me mad. Mostly because the fringe flops into my eyes all the time. How on earth do people with long hair manage?

But I must admit it is also more of a danger that a hair falls out for whatever reason - and one that I don't like to think about really - and therefore might get into the food that I am preparing. A hair in the soup. After all I don't want to end up like Henry VII's cook in one of the Chef's hat origin stories. (There are many)

"King Henry VIII beheaded a chef after finding a hair in his meal. The next chef was ordered to wear a hat while cooking, and thus began the use of hats to maintain hygiene." Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

But on the other hand:

"as early as the seventh century A.D., hats were worn by chefs to signify status. Specifically, they were given hats to make up for any mistreatment they were feeling, as this was a time in which chefs seemed to be regularly poisoning kings who scorned them." Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

"The oldest of these legends originates in the 7th century BCE. The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal feared he might be poisoned, so he requested his chefs wear a hat similar to that of the royal family, to be more easily recognised in the palace and show their allegiance to the sovereign." Alimentarium

I'm a little bit suspicious here. Is that the same story - with completely different dates, told in slightly different ways?

I have also been watching Guillaume Brahimi do his little foodie segments for Le Tour - without a chef's hat, and dressed in blue jeans and white T-shirt. And he is one of our most prominent 'real' chefs having helmed Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House for many years. He is a 'real' chef. And he is not alone. Most of today's chefs would not be caught dead in traditional gear in front of the camera. In fact many of them go out of their way to look as daggy as possible. Can you think of one who is always dressed in chef's whites? Which is the complete opposite of the Dictionnaire du Gastronomie's claim that "chefs and pastry chefs still wear a toque today, but mainly when they are in front of the public." I suspect that, in fact, they may well wear the more traditional clothing when they are actually being a chef.

Which implies that in terms of modern chefs, the chef's hat is purely a practical thing, not a symbol of prestige, which is how it has been used in semi modern times - depending on whose opinion you believe - from the nineteenth century onwards. And as you can see from the photograph of the late Paul Bocuse at the top of the page, it is still a prestige thing in certain quarters - most probably the Michelin starred restaurants of the great hotels, and the grand restaurants.

According to Wikipedia:

"The traditional chef's uniform (or chef's whites) includes a toque blanche( 'white hat'), white double-breasted jacket, pants in a black-and-white houndstooth pattern, and apron." Wikipedia

Sticking to just the hat, what are those origin stories and do all those different versions of a chef's hat symbolise anything other than male power?

The general opinion seems to be that the traditional 'toque blanche' is a nineteenth century thing, with Carême being given the nod as the originator.

“Impressed by the military uniforms on show at the 1814 Congress of Vienna, he invented this immaculately white, flat-topped hat, to reflect the purity and rigour to be found both on the plate and in the chef’s appearance.

Marie-Antoine Carême gave the hat an aesthetic element, to symbolise the prestige of the high-quality cuisine served in Europe’s finest houses. In the 19th century, it was firmly believed that food should further diplomatic relations,“ Jérémie Brucker

So a power thing. And let's not forget that this is the time when all the great chefs were men - a tradition that continued well into the twentieth century. In fact it still persists really. Yes there are some famous and top women chefs, but not many in comparison to the male brigade. Though most of the Instagram/blogger influencers are women. And men, much more than women I think, are power dressers. If women indulge in 'power dressing' it's most likely that they are competing in a traditionally male environment. I'm not talking about all the cooks who ran the kitchens of the great mansions of Europe, or even humbler homes, of course, No these chef uniforms were for those that ran the fine dining establishments - be they hotels, restaurants or clubs, the royal palaces and the diplomatic banquets.

Mind you this painting of a female cook in the sixteenth century reeks of power don't you think. I wouldn't want to tangle with her - just proving you don't need a uniform to look powerful. No cap or hat either.

I haven't actually found a list, but I think that the hats themselves symbolise different grades of achievement through the height and the number of pleats. I found two, though similar, explanations for the pleats:

"Traditionally, the chef’s hat was meant to have 100 pleats, symbolizing 100 different ways to cook an egg." Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

"The number of folds can also signify a chef's expertise, with each pleat representing a technique that has been mastered." Wikipedia

The apprentices and sous chefs, just wear those caps that you sometimes see and which date back to the original black caps that were worn - even by chefs.

“A chef’s hat was often made of black cotton, and intended to soak up sweat on the brows of those working in sweltering conditions, blackened by the embers of the fireplaces. This headgear also served to prevent hair from falling into food and to protect the wearer from splatters.” Alimentarium

Because yes, you do need to protect the food - and also your hair, indeed your person - in the process of cooking, so yes, it's probably sensible to wear some kind of head covering, even if it's just a simple cap or scarf. You wouldn't want it to catch on fire or get caught in some deadly machine would you? Indeed in a professional kitchen I'm sure that in today's world of rules and regulations and workplace health and safety a head-covering would be mandatory - even if it's one of those horrible papery/plasticky looking things you see people wearing in food factories.

I found this lovely photo of a chef somewhere in Italy, I don't know where, on the Alimentarium website.

His hat has quite a few pleats, though it's not very high - it's one of those floppy varieties, and a stunning waistcoat and black apron. The best of all worlds in a way. Some prestige and protection in the hat, and apron and personal style and fashion statement in the waistcoat. What about the beard though? Wouldn't hairs drop from that into the soup? How do you protect the food from the beard, and the beard from the food?

And finally - 'chef' means chief or the boss in French as well as an actual cooking chef. Which says something about the power thing doesn't it?



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