A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do chefs wear those tall white hats?

December 25, 1992

Dear Cecil:

Not one of the burning issues of the day, but something I've wondered about on occasion at your fancy restaurants. Why do master chefs wear those tall white hats? Something so silly must have a logical reason for being.

Cecil replies:

Here's the story I've heard, which sounds so absurd you know it's got to be the truth. Lay scholars who took refuge in seventh-century Byzantine monasteries during persecutions adopted headgear based on that of their clerical hosts. You've seen pictures of Greek Orthodox priests with those crowned black hats with the high band, right? Well, that's what the lay scholars wore, only their version was white, so as not to confuse the faithful.

Exactly how the scholar's cap came to be the chef's cap is a little murky, but we know many of the scholars were Greeks, the Greeks were among the first gastronomes, the scholar's cap was a mark of distinction, cooks wanted a mark of distinction ... OK, it's not going to get me an award from the historian's association but it's enough to fill out the bottom of a column. The top of the cap got progressively poufier over the years as master chefs sought ways to indicate that they outranked the pot washers.

But didn't you say something about a logical reason for being? The purpose of the cap, as opposed to its origin, is the same as for the caps worn by all food workers: it keeps your hair out of the soup.

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