Man at His Best

Opinion: Why Cooks Wear What They Do

There's a purpose behind the uniformity.

BY Ming | Jan 20, 2017 | Food & Drink

It’s one of the most iconic uniforms on the planet and defines an entire industry. A crisp white coat, patterned pants and that funny-looking hat—why such a specific set of things to wear?

Like most uniforms used by organised groups of professionals, a cook’s attire has practical origins. Kitchen work can get messy. Cooks were, therefore, likely an unpretty bunch before some visionary French people decided to codify the collective knowledge base of the cooking world.

They then dragged every baker, patissier, chef, and pale and pasty prep cook into the precision of the brigade de cuisine. Out of this came the basis of a scalable, disciplined and methodised kitchen that began with craftsmen who wore uniform uniforms.

In order to demonstrate legitimacy in any vocation, you’ve got to first look the part. Traditionally, a cook’s top is white, because the colour best represents orderly cleanliness and can be bleached to remove stains. It is often double-breasted, with a wide panel that can be unbuttoned to reveal a fresh, unblemished surface. This is perfect for when you need to step out of the confines of the kitchen without looking like a mess.

Chef’s jackets (note the distinction between peon cook and head honcho chef ) emphasise this, because they are more likely to wander into the dining room and speak to guests. Heavy gauge cotton is the preferred material of choice for durability, ease of starching, and protection from ambient heat and burns.

Cloth knots and hidden clasps are used instead of plastic buttons, because they don’t melt, won’t chip off into food, and are quicker to unfasten in the event the jacket needs to be discarded urgently. Like when you’re on fire.

A cook’s pants are patterned, baggy things that look distinctly oversized and hardly flatter the figure, but ironically help to save your ass. Excess folds of cloth protect the wearer from contact burns. Imagine being caught in skin-tight, struggle-for-10-minutes-to-put-on pants, as hot oil is accidentally spilled on you. See you in the burns unit.

Those common checked or tessellated hound’s tooth patterns found on every pair of kitchen pants are said to make stains less visible to the eye, again emphasising presentability. The large seat allows for ease of movement, providing give when a cook bends over, stretches wide or squats deep.

And then there’s that hat. Admittedly less useful and more stylised than the jacket and the pants combined, a chef’s toque is still a practical piece of gear. They say the small parcel of air suspended above the wearer’s head helps to regulate temperature, reducing discomfort in a warm, busy environment.

As with peacocks, the chef’s hat is plumage: the higher the toque, the more senior the cook. For massive hotel brigades that have upwards of two-dozen cooks per kitchen and are constantly juggling new staff from other areas all the time, it helps to be able to instantly recognise the boss and his lieutenants, so you know who’s gunning for you when you screw up.