It’s been an on going debate for years, check out this run down of the history of why Chef’s wear white, and once again it can be credited, in most, to one of the kitchen greats Auguste Escoffier. 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.
The toque as we know it today with its the many folds are said to be symbolic of the many ways to cook an egg.