A Brief History of the Chef Hat

Posted on September 20 2018

The Chef Hat Through the Ages

Ah, the chef hat. From status symbol at Michelin-star restaurants to hiding place in Ratatouille, the tall white chef hat (otherwise known as a chef toque) has taken on a life of its own. In a tradition dating back thousands of years, the chef hat now holds a very important position in the food and beverage industry. Here’s a look at where the chef hat tradition began, and how it evolved over the years to become the globally-recognized kitchen accessory it is today. 

7th Century BCE: Assyrian King Ashurbanipal 

The oldest legend relating to the now-famous white chef hats goes back to around 7th century BCE, in the ancient kingdom of Assyria under the rule of King Ashurbanipal. Legend has it that the king was afraid of being poisoned, and thus commanded that his dedicated chefs wear special hats “similar to that of the royal family” to mark their allegiance to the crown. With his chefs wearing the unique hats, the king could more easily distinguish his trusted staff within the palace and avoid taking food from the unaffiliated. 

6th Century: Greek Orthodox Monasteries 

Other accounts of the fuzzy origins of the chef toque say that they may have started during the 6th century BCE, at a time of dangerous political unrest in the Byzantine Empire. Threatened with persecution, chefs and other “learned men” fled and sought refuge in monasteries under the protection of Greek Orthodox priests. During their time in the monasteries, chefs evidently adopted the monks’ clothing to stay discreet – including the kalimavkion, or the priests’ tall, black, cylindrical hats. This is perhaps the headwear from which chef hats we know today gleaned their inspiration. 

The 1800s: French Chef Marie-Antoine Carême 

Fast-forward to the 1800s for a history on how the traditionally black chef hats (blackened by fire embers) became white. The tall white chef toques we see today trace back to Marie-Antoine Carême – a French master chef who catered to kings. In 1821, Chef Carême first debuted a white, flat-topped hat, opting for white as a sign of an immaculately clean kitchen. His inspiration for the color allegedly came from the white military uniforms at the 1814 Congress of Vienna. From that day forward, the most prominent chefs also donned white toques as symbols of pure appearances, kitchens, and food. 

The Early 1900s: Auguste Escoffier 

In the early 20th century, another prominent figure in French cuisine further contributed to the design of the chef hats we see today. Auguste Escoffier prioritized cleanliness and presentation of his kitchen staff, complete with the finishing touch: a white, upright toque. From there, the white chef hat spread internationally, taking up residence in kitchens of top chefs around Europe, North America, and Asia. 

Today: Chef Toques and Alternatives Abound 

Chefs and pastry chefs today still wear special toques, although they mainly reserve them for occasions when they will be cooking in public. For everyday use, other types of headwear are more common. It is acceptable for modern chefs to wear almost anything that will keep the hair and sweat from their eyes, including headwraps, bandanas, baseball caps, and more. Traditional chef bandanas are most common in Japanese cooking culture, where they’re called hachimaki. Many chefs choose to go hatless, if their hair is short enough, or to wear hairnets instead. 

Shop Restaurant Staff Headwear Online Now! 

The history of the toque is as rich as culinary history itself. Today, chefs’ hats can range from skullcaps to full toques. The symbolism remains the same, however. A chef’s hat is a way to distinguish chefs from the rest of a restaurant’s staff. Chef’s hats also serve many practical uses, from keeping hair out of food to protecting hair from fire and other hazards. Honor the tradition and keep your staff safe. Shop for all types of chef hats, including headwraps, skull caps, poplins, fitted caps & baseball caps from Fiumara Apparel today!

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