Saturday, March 29, 2014
“I’ve long wondered how to change the way we wear our cotton hats,” wrote the French chef Antonin Carême in his 1822 manifesto on modern cuisine, “Le Maître d’hôte Français.” While working for the British ambassador in Vienna in 1821, Carême got the idea to insert a round piece of cardboard inside the floppy cap that was then standard headgear in the kitchen. “A cook should present as a man in good health,” he explained, “and our regular hat suggests a state of convalescence.” His illustration of the new style in his book’s frontispiece had two chefs standing side by side: Both wear floppy hats and double-breasted coats, aprons tied around their waists. On one chef, the headgear seems to have more poof — courtesy of the cardboard insert — but it’s nothing like the pleated toques, at least eight inches high, that have since become iconic.
So what was the romantic school of cooking and why would its adherents wear muslin cylinders on their heads? This remains a mystery. Some scholars have suggested that the toque derives from the headgear of Ottoman soldiers. A military model does fit with the fact that hat size in the kitchen connotes rank. “Only the highest people in the hierarchy wear the toque, not the prep cooks and the dishwashers,” says Amy Trubek, author of “Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession.”
Wherever it comes from, the toque appears to be in decline. Major vendors of chef’s clothing now sell beanies, head wraps, skull caps and baseball hats. Traditional toques are more common in formal cooking schools than in working kitchens.