Dear Straight Dope:
What is the origin of the chef's hat?
SDStaff VegForLife replies:
Elementary, my dear Rwatson. The chef’s hat originated when a royal cook in the emply of King Henry VIII started going bald. Henry found a hair in his soup, had the cook beheaded, and ordered the next chef to start wearing a hat (the cook was only too happy to comply).
Actually, there are couple of different theories about the origin of the chef’s hat, or toque, and there is probably some truth in both.
Some say the toque can be traced back to the seventh century A.D., when chefs were considered learned men (remember that “epicurean” derives from the name of a Greek philosopher, Epicurus). Learned men didn’t always get the respect they deserved, though, and were often persecuted; at such times, they often took refuge in the local church, where they donned the same costumes that the local clergy were wearing, hats and all, as a disguise.
Eventually, not wanting to incur the wrath of God any more than the wrath of the local savages, they started wearing white hats instead of the black hats worn by Greek Orthodox priests, and the toque was born.
The other most prominent story about the history of the toque is that it comes to us from the ancient Assyrians. Since one of the more common ways to do in His Royal Highness back then was to poison his food (not to mention the fact that spoiled food was more common in the days before Whirlpool), chefs were chosen carefully, and treated very well, often even holding rank in the king’s court. Legend has it that the chef’s high position entitled him to wear a “crown” of sorts, in the same shape as the king’s, though made out of cloth and without all of those bothersome jewels. The crown-shaped ribs of the royal headdress became the pleats of the toque, originally sewn, and later stiffened with starch.
Speaking of pleats, the most widely circulated legend about the toque appears to be one concerning the number of pleats. From “A Pageant of Hats, Ancient and Modern,” by Ruch Edwards Kilgour, copyright 1958: “It was regarded as natural that any chef, worthy of the name, could cook an egg at least one hundred ways. The most-renowned chefs often boasted that they could serve their royal masters a different egg dish every day in the year, some of them so cleverly prepared, that aside from being highly palatable they had flavors as widely different as completely diverse kinds of foods. Today, noted chefs are seldom called upon to prove their prowess in this manner. Nevertheless, they still wear one hundred pleats on their hat, the old-time symbol of their skill in the egg department.” Maybe they did back in 1958, but several internet sites advertising toques for sale, both paper and vinyl, described their hats as having 48 pleats. I guess the advent of cholesterol screening had a bigger impact than most of us thought.
The toque has changed many times over the years, but most stories about its origins are variations on one of the two above. Since the most dramatic changes in style and shape are attributable to the French, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include something from a snotty Frenchman regarding the decline of toquish excellence. Roger Fessaguet, a previous co-owner of La Caravelle (which, I believe, is in New York), laments, “American chefs don’t wear a toque. Could you think of a policeman without a hat? That is part of the full uniform. I still have 12 uniforms. In the old days, I used to send my toques back to France aboard French Line ships, to Havre, where they were washed, ironed and starched by women who knew exactly what to do.” Yeah, and I’ll bet he walked five miles in the snow to his restaurant every day, and ten miles back home.
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