Why Do Chefs Wear White?

Cooking can get pretty messy, and having food stains on your clothes is generally what one might consider “not a good time.” Which means intuitively, you probably wouldn’t want to wear the easiest-to-stain color while working with food, because anything that gets on you is going to be really obvious. But for some reason, chefs do it, which feels a little bit pretentious when you give it a thought. So why do chefs wear white?

Further Reading: What’s Up with Chef Hats? | Chef Hat Origins and Meaning

That whole ensemble

The contemporary chef’s uniform dates back to the 19th-century, though aspects of it go back farther. Like the hat, for example. That goes back to the 16th-century. It’s called a toque, by the way. We’ve already done a dive into it. 

Anyway, the thick-white-coat uniform was pioneered by a guy named Marie-Antoine Carême. He was known as “the king of chefs and chef of kings.” Yes, he was French. There are two prevailing narratives surrounding the guy. One is that he’s the quintessential story of a lowly cooking apprentice who eventually rose up to be the guy of his craft. The other is that Carême was actually super conceited, pretentious, and a poor writer; his banquet pieces were extravagant wastes of otherwise good ingredients. Rational thought would tell us that he was probably somewhere in the middle, but the second story is way funnier. He was responsible for the French “mother sauces” though, recipes for which are still used today. So maybe the guy earned it?

Carême’s uniform was put to paper in 1822, he sketched it out right here. The sketch had the thick, double-breasted coat and apron we recognize today with contemporary chefs. The uniform would be popularized in 1878 with its mass-production. That was left to another French guy named Auguste Escoffier, who streamlined a lot of Carême’s writings. Escoffier operated restaurants in London, where he made everyone wear the chief’s uniform. He also did some defrauding in 1897.

So what does it all mean?

A lot of choices behind the chef’s uniform are actually functional. Being double breasted serves as better protection from boiling liquids that might splash onto someone. It also makes the jacket reversible, to hide stains if a chef needs to step out quickly and look clean.  

Which then begs the question “why choose a color that’s so easy to stain?” 

The stains are actually kind of the point. The idea was to project cleanliness, and a pristine white coat went a ways in projecting that outwards (even if you could just reverse the jacket to its clean side).

See if you know your celebrity chefs here.