Chef hats have a rather long history, with many colorful stories and anecdotes attributed to it. Whether most of these actually happened or are simply figments of someone’s imagination, we do not know for sure, but what we do know is that they make the Chef hat a very interesting and significant part of a Chef’s uniform.
One of the more popular stories goes that King Henry the VIII once beheaded his chef after finding a hair in his meal, and from there onwards commanded that all chefs and cooks should wear a hat to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Alternately, some stories mention that Chef hats were used as early as the seventh century AD, during a time when many kings and royalty were being poisoned by their enemies. Hence in order to ensure that there was no chance for their enemies to get to them, Kings only hired their most trusted people to the position of chef in the royal courts. In order to give these people a certain honor and significance as the Chef to the king and a certain level of importance, they were remunerated very handsomely and they were given cloth Chef hats that were similar in appearance to the king’s crown, albeit without the jewels etc. While these stories may or may not be true, they do portray what a Chef’s hat is, a symbol of status for a Chef.
Another popular story goes back to Greece around 146 BCE, when the Byzantine Empire invaded Greece. When the invaders arrived in Greece it was popularly made known that any task performed using creativity, was considered to be a sin. Hence many chefs during that time, fled and hid in monasteries for protection, and started disguising themselves as monks, wearing the monks costume. These monk’s wore large hats, which were also worn by the Chefs and even after the invaders left Greece, they continued to wear the hats as a symbol of solidarity and rebellion.
Chef Hats are more commonly known as Toques, and include pleats, which make it very stylish. In addition to the fashionable aspect of the pleats, they also convey a different story. It is said that during the early years of Chef hats the pleats on the hat represented the number of recipes that the chef was conversant in. For example, 100 pleats on a Chef hat meant that the chef knew 100 different ways of preparing an egg, which portrayed their expertise, experience and ranking in the kitchen. Another way of showing the different ranks of chefs in a kitchen is by the height of the hat. The head chef usually had the tallest hat, while assistant chefs or specialty chefs wore shorter ones. Cooks and kitchen helpers who are not yet up to the rank of ‘chef’ wore head coverings called Skull Caps, or beanies.
These days of course for every day use in the busy kitchen, even a Head Chef may prefer to wear Skull Caps, Beanies or even a simple Bandana as it makes it more comfortable for them to work in, and provides greater air flow and temperature control. However, when going out to meet customers or other VIP’s, or during functions or events when the chef is required to be present among outside people, they prefer to wear their professional Toque to show their status in the kitchen and their level of experience and expertise.
In recent times Chefs who prefer functionality over style and fashion, use many different types of hats to cover their heads while working. These include paper hats which are more moisture absorbent and comfortable, such as disposable Chef hats, which are popularly available with many high-end manufacturers of chef uniforms.
Let’s just say that Chef hats have come a long way since the supposed beheading of that one particular chef during the reign of King Henry VIII, and they have become more functional, more stylish and more of a status symbol than ever for the Chef.
The world’s first celebrity chef, Chef Marie-Antoine Carême, who was the creator of the Chef uniform, illustrated the complete uniform with a white Toque, to symbolize cleanliness and the highest level of hygiene that a chef is supposed to follow. These days, however, Chef hats come in a range of colors and styles, and even types, made using varying fabrics, that create a very stylish look and yet make working in a hot, busy kitchen much more comfortable and easier.