Chefs wear tall white hats as a status symbol to show their rank within the kitchen, with the head chef wearing the tallest hat. The color white was chosen, not by happenstance, but rather because white was seen as the most hygienic of colors. In this way, restaurants aimed to portray an image of cleanliness to their guests. These tall white hats are commonly referred to as toque blanches, which is French for “white hats.” The height of the adoption and popularity of tall white hats in French fine dining began nearly 200 years ago.
As a longstanding practice, hats have been worn by chefs in kitchens for a more practical purpose: to keep hair out of their faces and, more importantly, out of the food. However, the height of the toque has little, if anything, to do with hygiene. Instead, it is a symbol of professionalism and status. The tall white chef hat is something earned through excellence throughout a career, and only the top chef at each restaurant was granted the honor.
Furthermore, you may have noticed that most of the tall white chef hats that you see have pleats. These pleats, while adding a degree of fashion to an otherwise bland look, also serve a purpose. Historically, the number of pleats in a toque blanche has been used to denote the number of ways a chef knows how to cook an egg. Or, in other words, they are used to quantify and publicize a chef’s expertise.
While chefs in fancy restaurants frequently wore toque blanches in the 1800s and into the 1900s, modern chef uniforms do not always include the tall white hat. In fact, many chefs in restaurants today, including some of the world’s most elegant, simply wear small hats or even hair nets rather than the traditional toque blanche. But some things are too iconic to fade from popular culture.
- Cristeta Pasia Comerford, who has been White House Executive Chef since 2005, is the first woman and person of Filipino descent to hold that position.
- Jamie Oliver, who first rose to fame in 1999 on BBC’s The Naked Chef, is the wealthiest chef in the world, amassing a net worth of over $370 million as of 2019.
- Michelin stars are used in the industry to rate the quality of fine restaurants, with a three-star rating being the highest. As of fall 2020, only 135 restaurants worldwide had three Michelin stars.
- Escoffier.edu – A History of the Chef’s Hat
- Nytimes.com – Who Made That Chef’s Toque?
- Baltimoresun.com – How the toque blanche became the classic ‘chef’s hat’