Why Do Chefs Wear Those Silly Hats?

If you've ever peered into the kitchen of a high-end restaurant, you may have spotted a chef wearing a tall, white hat. Along with the white chef's coat and checkered pants, these hats (called toques blanches, or just toques) are an essential part of a chef's uniform. But why do chefs wear them?

Chef's toques are tall, round, white, starched, and pleated, and have been worn by chefs since the early 1800s. Chefs have worn head coverings since long before that, and the modern toque most likely originated from stocking caps worn by French chefs in the early 1700s. The color of the stocking cap (called a casque à mèche) signified the rank of the wearer. It wasn't until Boucher, the chef of the French statesman and gourmet Talleyrand, insisted that all toques be white — to indicate cleanliness — that the color was standardized.

The toque as we know it today become commonplace when the legendary French chef Marie-Antoine Carême began wearing one in the early 1800s (he's largely credited with standardizing the chef's uniform), and Auguste Escoffier brought it to London later in the century. Different heights indicate rank within a kitchen (the head chef's toque is the tallest), and the many folds are said to be symbolic of the many ways to cook an egg.