Maybe you saw it in a movie or in one of those cooking shows. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, because if you’re asking this question you’re definitely familiar with that white tower sitting on top of the heads of chefs. Or that little mushroom looking thing. So what is up with chef hats? What do meaning do they even have anyway?
Total sidebar, but we love how cooking shows are always like “make us a pastry themed around cars” except in America. It’s like “we removed all the salt, your bread has been replaced by live chickens, you have 30 seconds to bake the solution to a geopolitical crisis.”
While the chef hat in its more contemporary form likely dates back to 16th century France, the idea of a “chef’s hat” may date as far back as the 7th century Assyrian people. Chefs wore special hats that differed from other people in the kitchen. Supposedly chefs were poisoning royalty rampantly, and they were gifted special headgear to placate them.
There exists another theory that King Henry VII once found hair in his soup and had the chef beheaded. The chef’s hat evolved from there as a rudimentary hairnet.
You might see the chef’s hat referred to more formally as a toque blanche. Sounds super sophisticated right? Well no it’s just French for “white hat.” Toques are a specific type of hat though, characterized by having no brim (or if they do have one, it’s really narrow). Once upon a time, toques were popular. They’re not really today, and have largely become synonymous with chef attire. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that chef’s hats are more commonly just referred to as toques.
It’s no secret that the toque is a symbol of status in the kitchen, not everyone gets to wear the white uniform. In the 1800s, a guy named Marie-Antoine Carême decided chefs needed special uniforms. You’re probably not surprised to read that he’s often considered one of the first “celebrity chefs.” He’s credited with creating the chef image you think of when you imagine the full white garb. While toques were already worn by chefs to this point, Carême did want to go for the rest of the uniform you think of now. There’s even some sophisticated ranking shenanigans that go on with them! Taller hats mean one has a higher rank, and the most experienced chef should get the tallest hat. The folds are also a symbol of experience, where each one represents a technique that chef has mastered.
So we imagine the godliest chef hat is a skyscraper-height mess of folds.
As for the rest of the uniform, Carême chose white–which is meant to signify cleanliness in the kitchen. Also means your uniform is going to stain super easily, which is probably the point?
See if you can’t identify famous chefs here.