By Ana Kinkaid
Today’s diners accept a chef’s gleaming white jacket as the standard attire of a culinary professional, prompted in part by the early television appearances of Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck. Yet the real story of why chefs wear white began much earlier than today’s endless cooking shows.
Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, cooking was a largely undefined profession in which kitchen staff wore street clothes, or in the better households, an assortment of grey clothing often covered with stains.
That is until Marie-Antonin Carême entered culinary history. At this time, Paris was famed for its elaborate pastries and the most innovative creator of these popular towering sugar edifices, known as pièce montées, was Carême.
Such creations were expensive and available only in wealthy households or in the windows of exclusive pastry shops. When the blood bath released by the French Revolution broke loose, it was not a safe time to be found working in an elite estate kitchen or serving the rich.
Conscious of this danger, Carême changed from creating sugar towers to crafting useful sauces. Yet as he changed career focus, he brought with him the single breasted white jacket he wore as a Parisian pastry chef.
Once the chaos of the French Revolution subsided, Napoleon emerged as the supreme leader. He was most certainly a military genius, but he was not a gourmet. In fact, he could have cared less what he ate as long as it was hot and ready.
Napoleon was aware, however, that dining facilitates dialogue and dialogue strengthens relationships. He gave his minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord a grand estate and told him to create a diplomatic gathering place complete with a stunning banquet hall.
The chef of the estate was of course Carême, in his preferred white jacket. And although both he and Talleyrand survived the fall of Napoleon, the use of a white jacket fell out of use as noble households re-established themselves and kitchen staff returned to wearing gray livery.
It was Auguste Escoffier a half century later who revived the use of Carême’s beloved white jacket. Just as Escoffier began his kitchen apprenticeship in 1865 at the age of 19, he was drafted into military service. What he observed in the army affected his entire career and the countless chefs he influenced.
From the military he adopted rank and order and brought that concept to the kitchen. Each person had a specific task and title. With each position came a uniform denoting the status of the person. A towering white toque replaced the military helmet with its tall plumes and brass insignias. Traditionally, an executive chef’s toque is 12-inches tall, making the chef recognizable across the expanse of the kitchen floor, like a general on a battlefield.
Escoffier knew that diners needed to be assured that their food was prepared in a pristine environment and safe to eat. What better way to do that then to revive Carême’s snow white jacket, but with two major adjustments and one addition.
First he replaced the cheap clipping buttons with cloth French knot buttons or buttons drilled from sturdy oyster shells. This made the jacket quicker to remove, safer and more elegant in appearance.
Next he redesigned the jacket from single breasted to double breasted. This adjustment enabled the busy chef, often with a stained jacket front, to quickly switch the soiled side to an alternate clean side when meeting a guest.
Additionally, Escoffier required a looser fitting trousers, similar to the fuller military cut, to enable better ease of movement. He also promoted the selection of a black and white houndstooth fabric pattern for the new pants style. Like camouflage, it hid not the solider, but the stains.
At this point it might seem there is no tradition that supports a chef wearing color, yet there is. Between the influential years of Carême and Escoffier, another legendary chef made a name for himself and his outfits. He is also the subject of a play today: Alexis Soyer.
Like Carême, he rose from the kitchen ranks and, like Escoffier, became world famous. As a young chef, he saved his life and those of his fellow cooks when an angry mob, unhappy with the heavy handed rule of the new French king, broke into the estate kitchen where he worked.
Soyer saved the day by jumping onto a nearby kitchen table and loudly singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, thereby turning the angry mob into a cheering crowd. Soyer never forgot the moment and the power of appearance to influence others. Later, as chef of London’s renowned Reform Club, he added flair and color to traditional chef’s attire, starting with his own professional wardrobe. He wore a velvet beret, lace and a bright silk jacket cut on the bias when he cooked.
His decision to wear vivid colors and dress in elegant fabrics was not one of vanity but of professionalism. In an era when men of the upper class wore black, brown and blue, he wanted to stand out and let the world know chefs were skilled individuals to be noticed and appreciated, not dismissed as just another nameless servant.
He followed through on his belief that chefs were people of substance by actively engaging in relief efforts during the Great Irish Potato Famine and with Florence Nightingale during the bloody Crimea War.
The final touch of color (or absence of it altogether) began about 15 years ago when transparency and the sense of dining as an experience prompted the open kitchen concept. With diners now able to see food preparation, black jackets were adopted to hide food stains.
Today, chefs have many choices both in career and attire–traditional, modern and innovative. Yet there is a common core that links them all together. Chefs are part of a community that isn’t merely regional, national or even international. It is a universal fellowship of pride and integrity that begins each day with a simple professional jacket and a commitment to honoring the past while creating the future.