If there is one professional symbol denoting excellence that’s recognized around the world, that image is the chef’s towering white toque. Yet few know the full story of how a tall, multi-pleated hat came to represent the world’s most universal profession.
The first record of the toque appears in the seventh century A.D. when regime change forced chefs from the Middle East to flee their homelands and hide among the black-robed monks in Greece’s mountain monasteries.
Legend has it that the skills of the chefs, though welcomed in the monasteries’ kitchens, made them hard to hide. To escape detection, the visiting chefs donned the attire of the resident monks including their top hats, called a skoufos. As months turned into years, the now-resident chefs retained the hat but abandoned the cumbersome veil.
Similar hats appeared throughout the following centuries. Arabs brought the hat across North Africa into Spain along with exotic spices and the forerunner of paella. The over-700-year reign of the Iberian Peninsula left many lasting influences including the design of the toque, worn this time by members of the nobility.
English urban legend tells how the food-loving Henry VIII became incensed when be found hair in his royal soup. When it was discovered the hair belonged to a well meaning but careless chef, there was a concern heads might literally roll.
But a good chef was too valuable to lose, so rather than execution, the King (who was married for 24 years to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon), remembering the fashions of the visiting Spanish nobles, ordered his royal chefs to wear shortened caps or scarfs when cooking.
By the mid-1700s chefs throughout Europe were donning wide assortment of headwear. It is a young pastry chef named Marie-Antoine Carême who must be thanked for bringing the white hat fully into culinary tradition. As a young bread and cake maker, he and all the fellow members of Paris’ pastry guild wore white caps, called casque à meche, with white jackets to prevent the ever-present white flour from covering their street clothes.
When once again political turmoil invaded the world of cuisine, to save both his career and most probably also his life, Carême shifted from creating sugary centerpieces for the royal court to crafting savory dinners for Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Proud of his early training, he wore his white jacket and soft toque as he worked.
Sadly, Carême’s toque blanche and its matching jacket fell into disuse after his death. It wasn’t until another French chef, this time the famed Auguste Escoffier, appeared that the toque’s fame quite literally soared.
Having served in the military, Escoffier had seen the value of order and defined positions. He noted that the officer with the highest plumes commanded the highest respect.
As a chef in some of Europe’s most elegant hotels, he remembered and resurrected Carême’s soft white toque. He stiffened and raised it to a military height of 18 inches, complete with 100 tightly ironed pleats.
Various culinary stories have attempted to explain the reasons for the addition of so many pleats. Some sources say they represented the 100 sauces or 100 egg dishes a Master Chef must know in order to claim his executive title. In reality, the 100 starched pleats simply strengthened the toque’s tall structure.
Today, chefs wear a wide variety of headgear from skull caps to scarves to formal toques, all representing the diversity and creativity foundational to the culinary profession. Yet the tall white toque remains the towering symbol of the industry — one at the sight of which the world knows to say “Yes, chef!”
Ana Kinkaid is a food historian and the editor of CONNECT, a quarterly online magazine designed exclusively for chefs, culinary educators and dedicated students.