Although today, chefs wear many different colors and combinations of clothing in the kitchen, reflecting their own style, the typical uniform we associate with a chef is both practical and traditional. It is sometimes said that Napoleon ushered in the tradition, which then evolved to suit practical needs because he wanted his chefs to look like soldiers. More often, the uniform is attributed to chef Antonin Carême. See Haute Cuisine and Nouvelle Cusine.
Various stories are attached to Carême’s adaptation of the uniform, including that he simply borrowed the existing Baker’s uniform, and that he changed the traditional chef’s uniform from gray to white. It does seem fairly clear that he was the one who formalized white for his own kitchen staff. Few chefs of the time, it is said, agreed with him. Escoffier probably deserves as much credit for codifying the white uniform and bringing it into acceptance.
True or not, chefs of old were nowhere near as colorful and variable in dress as today’s chefs. Despite the lack of standard uniform, there are still those who stick to the basics, and there are still practical parts of a chef’s uniform that most professionals employ.
Why do Chefs Wear a White Jacket?
The chef’s jacket is a completely practical piece of clothing. Although you see all sort of different colors in today’s kitchens, white is still the most frequently used color. Although white might show stains easier than darker colors, it can also be bleached clean. Darker colors will still show many stains, and it is not as easy to get these stains out, as a strong bleach will fade the color produce bleach spots. Also, a bright white coat is an assurance to the customer that the chef is clean, and by extension, his kitchen. Nothing looks “cleaner” than bright white. White also does not absorb heat but helps reflect it back so that the chef is better protected from the harsh heat of cooking flames and pans. Not to mention the occasional flare-up. As well, the heavy cotton fabric is protective.
The sleeves are long to protect the arms from hot oil or other burns. The front of the jacket is double-breasted with a row of buttons on each side. The double layer provides an additional layer of protection against heat or burns. As well, the layer that is on the outside can be reversed, so that if the jacket does become stained and dirty, the chef can reverse the jacket and button it on the other side, revealing a nice clean front.
The buttons on a chef’s jacket were also different than the buttons we use on button-down shirts. Instead of a plastic or metal button, they used knotted-cloth buttons, usually referred to simply as “French knot buttons,” that were less likely to break. The cloth construction prevented buttons, or pieces of buttons, ending up in food, and also made the jackets easier to remove in case of fire or contact with hot oil, as the buttons slip loose more readily than hard buttons. Although today many less expensive chef’s jackets use regular buttons, more high-end ones will still feature old-style cloth French knot cloth buttons.
Why the Loose Black and White Checkered Pants?
Black and white checkered pants are common attire for professional chefs working in the kitchen. This pattern is often confused with a houndstooth pattern, which is a traditional pattern for chef pants. Today, of course, you will see chefs wearing all sorts of colors and styles of pants.
Why the Black and White Checkered Pattern?
The houndstooth pattern was adopted because of its supposed ability to conceal stains. Houndstooth is not actually a check, but rather alternating black and white jagged lines. From a distance, you may not be able to tell the difference.
Whether a checked pattern or a houndstooth pattern, the alternating black and white pattern is a sort of camouflage for food and grease stains. The eye just can’t notice the dirt as easily.
Of course, the traditional white chef coat will not hide stains, but the double-breasted adaptation, as mentioned above, helps solve this. Also, a chef can easily change their jacket if it does become hopelessly soiled. But changing pants is another matter!
Why are Chef Pants Baggy?
Chef pants are baggy to help keep chefs cool in the kitchen, which can be an extremely hot environment. As well, the loose pants give cooks room to move around with ease, bend over, etc. Chef’s pants often have large pockets in them to accommodate kitchen tools or hand towels. Loose fitting pants also help protect from burns.
Today, you can purchase houndstooth or black and white checked chef pants from a number of manufacturers. Pants can also be bought in many solid colors, striped patterns, abstract, food or kitchen-ware patterns.
Lightweight cotton or mixed synthetics are used, sometimes with a Teflon coating, to resist stains and protect from burns. Tight fitting pants, would be very dangerous in the case of a hot oil spill, as the fabric would hold the heat right against the skin. Loose fitting trousers help keep the hot oil from contacting the skin. At the same time, an overly baggy style is sometimes worn by chefs in the U.S. and this can present its own safety hazard. If the material is too loose, it might catch on kitchen equipment, or even catch on fire.
Why the Necktie or “Neckerchief”?
The tour de cou, a necktie or neckerchief worn around the neck, although it is not used as often these days, was meant to mop up sweat both from the neck and the brow. The different colors could also be used to identify different members of the kitchen staff, although it is not clear how much this actually came into play. Modern kitchens are better ventilated than older ones, so there is less need for the necktie, but it is still worn out of a sense of tradition, by some chefs. As well, the armed forces, caterers, hotels, and cooking schools often require colored neckties. Using them to actually wipe sweat from the face is now against health and safety regulations, as it is considered unhygienic so wearing them at all is either to identify kitchen ranks, or simply to be traditional.
Chefs usually wear a long white apron that is folded over on top and tied in the front. It at least covers the knees. The apron is additional protection against heat and burns. Tying the apron in front allows it to be removed more quickly.
Chef’s shoes, as you probably can guess, ought to protect the feet from hot oil and falling object, especially knifes. They should be non-slip. Sometimes chefs wear shoes with steel toecaps to offer additional protection, but today, you are just as likely to see a chef wearing sandals or sneakers.
The Chef’s Side Towel
Although not always discussed as part of the uniform, the chef’s side towel or torchon, is traditional. If you watch TV chefs, you might notice they wear a towel looped through the ties of their apron and hanging at their side along the thigh. You might see chefs doing two different things with these towels. Drying or wiping their hands, or using it to hold hot pots and pans. Which do you think is proper? Yes, it is traditionally meant to hold pots and pans. It should not be used to dry the hands, because if the chef gets the towel wet, and then forgets and uses it as a pot holder, the wet fabric will conduct heat very quickly, instead of insulating against it, resulting in a nasty hand burn, if not a dropped pan and even more severe burns. Using it to wipe off dry hands is a big no-no. Using it to wipe the rim of a plate? Never!
The Chef’s Hat
The last part of the traditional uniform to discuss is the chef’s toque. Toques are white cloth hats of varying heights, which are open at the top to allow air circulation. During the time of Carême, the height of the toque showed the chef’s rank. The taller the hat, the more senior the chef. An apprentice might just wear a skullcap, with no height at all. A hat, of course, also keeps hair from falling into the food. Today, most chefs do not wear a traditional toque. Many, even head chefs prefer the simple skullcap, or even a bandana tied on the head. Other disposable food service hats or “hairnets” are sometimes used, and disposable toques are also made.
Should Chefs Wear Their Uniforms Outside the Kitchen?
If you live in a busy city with a good restaurant scene, you might sometimes see a person walking down the sidewalk, or crossing the street, who is wearing chef’s clothing and so obviously works in a restaurant. If you’re like me, this strikes you as odd. Why does this seem so unusual?
Well, because it is unusual. It is considered improper for chefs to wear their uniforms outside the kitchen. Chefs usually change into their chef’s attire after they arrive at work. This is because of the risk of airborne contamination getting onto the clothing while moving about outside. It is probably unlikely that any such “contamination” would really pose a great hazard but nonetheless, wearing a chef’s uniform outside is frowned upon. When you see this, it is probably not a professionally trained chef. Of course, those same professional chefs who do not wear their uniform outside of work may think nothing of taking a cigarette break out back of the restaurant where the dumpsters are!
Where Can a Female Chef Find Flattering and Well-Fitted Chef’s Coats?
If you are a female chef, you have probably struggled with finding chef’s clothing that is truly flattering and stylish. To shop for fashion-forward but functional chef’s coats, look no further than my friend and fashion designer Sandra Harvey at Sandra Harvey Chef Apparel.* Wear something the boys can’t!
And men, you can also find a great short sleeve and long sleeve jacket.