My Take On The Toque

You know, I am going to own up to something right here and right now: I utterly loathe and despise the toque, which is the proper name of the classic chef’s hat. Whether it is tall and straight sided with a bazillion pleats which mythically refer to the number of ways a proper chef knows how to prepare eggs, or the balloon-like mushroom cloud version, or especially if it is the idiotic floppy deflated-balloon version, I bloody well hate them all.

They are about the dumbest looking headgear known to humankind, and I know of very few people who look good in them.

The least objectionable ones of the lot are the tall, stiffly pleated ones like the one pictured above. Some chefs manage to look dignified while wearing those toques; however, some less fortunate persons look as if they have a tall cake perched upon their heads.

The balloon-like toques are universally ugly, I don’t care what anyone says. It looks like a fabric light bulb tucked on top of someone’s head.

And the floppy ones?

It is completely impossible to look like anything other than a goofball wearing one of those misbegotten wastes of fabric. The best one can hope for when wearing one is those is that no one will ever enter the kitchen and see you, at worst, even the most upright and handsome individual is turned into a chef from the shallow end of the gene pool. Besides, no one can take a cook or a chef seriously as a culinary professional while they have a lopsided deflated mushroom cloud on his head. Looking like a cartoon character does nothing to enhance one’s professional image.

If you watch a lot of celebrity chefs on television, or see photographs of them in newspapers and magazines, you will notice that very few of them wear the toque, even when cooking. Or, if they do wear them in the kitchen, they don’t let anyone take a photograph of them while they are so attired.

Take a look at photos of Marco Pierre White, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert. Do you see them wearing white monstrosities upon their heads? Not really often. Like, ever.

I wonder why that is?

Could it be because it doesn’t matter how good looking you are, or how trim the cut of your chef’s coat, you are doomed to dweebdom if you put a tall cylindrical white hat on your head?

Do you think?

I was forced to wear toques of a sort in culinary school–I say of a sort, because I don’t think that a disposable cylinder of white corrugated cardboard counts as a hat of any kind–and I hated them intensely. The faculty and staff did their best to instill in each of us a sense of pride in our uniforms, including the paper toques, telling us that we should walk with our heads up and shoulders back, because we were upholding a centuries old tradition that was sacred in its importance.

Right.

So, where did the tall toque hat come from? The story I was told in culinary school was that chefs long ago were, along with other learned persons, intellectuals and artisans, sometimes persecuted for being so smart and skilled. So as to save themselves from death, a number of them hid out with some Greek Orthodox priests. In order to not be noticed overmuch, they took to wearing the sacred vestments of these priests which included–you guessed it–really tall cylindrical hats. Now, the priests wore black, and so as to not offend God or the priests, the chefs took to wearing grey vestments and and hats.

Later, in the middle of the 19th century, great French chef Marie-Antoine CarĂªme redesigned the chef’s uniform, making the hat and coat white to denote cleanliness.

When our chefs in school railed against the then current trend of chefs and cooks wearing chef’s jackets with baseball caps in the kitchen, saying that they should instead be wearing the traditional toque, because that was the mark of a chef, and besides baseball caps were designed for playing baseball, not cooking–well, I’d always wonder about what the toque was “designed” to do.

If the origin story is to be believed, it was designed to hide the identity of chefs in order that they might not be persecuted. They were not designed to be practical in the kitchen–if they really evolved from the traditional headgear of Greek Orthodox priests, the hat was meant to make them appear taller, so they could be seen easily from the back of a church, not to mention it gives them a look of otherworldliness.

Being as kitchens are nowhere near as big as churches and chefs have no need to cultivate the air of otherworldliness, what purpose does a toque serve, really?

Sure, it is supposed to keep hair out of food, but really, any number of other caps, scarves, hats and other headgear do that more efficiently. I find that a baker’s cap works perfectly for tucking hair up and out of the way. It also does something that most toques suck at–it absorbs sweat to keep it out of your eyes.

And, one is not doomed to utter gooberosity just by putting it on one’s head.

Bandannas work well, as do the reviled baseball caps–and all three of these head coverings do not tower over a cook’s head.

And frankly, in the close quarters of most kitchens, where there are low-hanging bits of equipment, pot racks and vent-hoods–and in the case of where I work, ceilings–a tall toque is really not practical at all.

So if the toque doesn’t really absorb sweat, and is in the way and looks utterly stupid, why in the world would any chef want to wear it?

Why, indeed.

It strikes me as really silly to cling to an ugly, uncomfortable, impractical bit of headgear as part of a chef’s uniform, just because of “tradition.” And if you look at a lot of the top chefs in the world, it seems that they agree with me, because I don’t see them wearing toques.

Of course, you notice they all wear chef’s jackets, though. That is because they are eminently practical pieces of clothing. Worn over a t-shirt, a double-breasted chef’s jacket not only looks dashing and trim (if it is well-tailored, that is) it puts a total of five or six (if they wear a bib apron) layers of cloth between the chef and the heat of the stove. If a cook or chef were to splatter hot grease upon his or her chest, or roux or a bit of boiling stock, the dangerous liquid would have to soak through all of that cloth to get to his or her skin and burn it. And, in the case of an ugly splash of sauce, the double-breasted jacket allows the chef to easily unbutton the jacket and rebutton it with a clean, new front presented to the world.

So you see, just because I argue against the use of the toque as a regular part of a chef’s uniform because it really isn’t practical, I am not completely thumbing my nose at tradition. I just happen to think that the jacket is a practical and handsome garment that I am proud to wear, while the toque–well, it just isn’t.

So, I don’t wear it.

Now that I have said all of this, I am sure someone is going to ask me what I cover my head with at work. That is a good question, since I have fairly long (down to my shoulders) hair.

Sometimes, I wear a plain black baker’s cap with all of my hair tucked under it. It goes perfectly with my black chef’s coat, black pants, black bistro apron and black Dansko clogs, while absorbing sweat, keeping my hair in control and looking mighty dashing to boot.

But the hat I wear most often at work is something that was never meant to be a chef’s hat at all. It looks basically like the prayer cap worn by Muslim men, called the “kufi.” The one I wear is from India, is grey-blue and instead of being plain, it is decorated heavily with black, gold and blue embroidery.

It absorbs sweat, it isn’t tall enough to get in the way, and it contains my hair.

All while looking really spiffy.

What more could I ask from a piece of kitchen headgear?

16 Comments

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  1. Best thing about stiff-sided toques? Hibachi chefs catching food on them. But that’s supposed to be silly.

    Comment by Michael Leuchtenburg — June 17, 2008 #

  2. Very interesting and informative!

    I’d love to see a picture of your hats sometime.

    Comment by Kitt — June 17, 2008 #

  3. Well, it’s nice to hear a pro say that the toques look a bit goofy…because they do. ;)

    And I don’t understand the railing against baseball caps in a kitchen – if you wear glasses, a brimmed hat will help keep the inevitable ‘grease haze’ off of them a lot better than a brimless headcover.

    In my kitchen, with it’s whopping 3 covers a day (LOL!!) ballcaps are perfectly acceptable. :-D

    Comment by Cindy — June 17, 2008 #

  4. I saw a lot of these worn in kitchens in the UK (http://countingsheep.typepad.com/amuse_bouche/2008/05/Making_pasties2.jpg)
    Quite a bit cooler looking in a Sinatra gangster sort of way.
    I hate my toque that I must wear when i teach, and I hate it for all the reasons that you mentioned. As students we wore bakers hats, visually not much better on me, but still not as annoying as the toque.

    Comment by jo — June 17, 2008 #

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more about the hats. Hats in a kitchen have important functions, none of which a toque fulfills. Baseball caps do, even though they look out of place. And, as Harold McGee found out, the bill of a baseball cap keeps airborne grease away from the inside of one’s glasses. Show me a toquee that can do that!

    Comment by Harry — June 17, 2008 #

  6. I’m so glad I read this! I was going to go buy one of these silly hats for a friend who is graduation from culinary school! Now that I’ve been set straight I’ll get her something useful!

    Comment by Nan — June 17, 2008 #

  7. Nurses used to be compelled to wear stupid traditional caps as well
    http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/paharc/collections/gallery/miscellaneous/MG3-1_ff231_caps.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/paharc/collections/gallery/miscellaneous/Caps.html&h=436&w=500&sz=21&hl=en&start=1&um=1&tbnid=dtC4gSBwvApTKM:&tbnh=113&tbnw=130&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dhistoric%2Bnurses%2Bcaps%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den-us%26sa%3DG
    but switched to pins.

    Utility is good, particularly when also embroidered.

    Comment by wwjudith — June 18, 2008 #

  8. After a post like that, we really do need to see photos chef dressing Barbara-style, you know ;-)

    Comment by Steph in the UK — June 19, 2008 #

  9. After a post like that, we really do need to see photos of chef clothing in a Barbara-style, you know ;-)

    Comment by Steph in the UK — June 19, 2008 #

  10. I think I chose my culinary school because toques were not required. Well, that, and because it was cheaper than the other NYC school that required them.

    Comment by AppetiteforChina — June 19, 2008 #

  11. I’m totally making this up, but wouldn’t the high hat, open at the top, act like a chimney and funnel heat away? They do look silly though.

    Comment by Eugenio — June 19, 2008 #

  12. I could not agree more. There is absolutely no way to look feminine and cute with those damn things on your head. A female co-worker of mine, who worked the omelet station was called “Sir” a bunch of times. Even with the skull cap, she still got the same thing. But the puffy pillsbury dough boy hats are cumbersome and silly looking. Just let us slick our damn hair back and be done with it already. With a condition – if ever a guest finds a hair in the food you prepared, you have to shave it off! HAHA kidding… well, sort of ;-)

    Comment by Martha Stockinger — May 14, 2011 #

  13. oh I forgot, one time, I did take the hat home, and shorten it by cutting it up and using a hot glue gun to stick the pleats together back to the top sides of the cut out star round posterboard thingy. It looked much better, yet still lame.

    Comment by Martha Stockinger — May 14, 2011 #

  14. I think the toque looks pretentious and silly, and it’s not very practical. What sort of headwear (if any) do you wear in your kitchen?

    Comment by Nancy — June 15, 2011 #

  15. I used to wear a baker’s cap, a plain black brimless cap that kept my hair under control, doesn’t look silly and had a quiet dignity about.

    Comment by Barbara — June 16, 2011 #

  16. Personally, I feel the OPPOSITE!!

    I have NO problem with the tocque, but rather I HATE the chef’s jacket, finding it too thick & heavy and extremely hot, sweaty & sweltering.

    That was the one thing I HATED wearing the MOST during the pastry course I took at Le Cordon Bleu!

    Every minute I was wearing that infernal jacket, I was counting the minutes/hours until class was over and I could just shed that infernally stuffy chef’s jacket!

    The tocque on the other hand…..I LOVED it, and thought it looked awesome!!!

    Comment by Ami — October 23, 2011 #

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