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La Toque Blanche

There are as many legends surrounding the tall white hat that symbolizes culinary expertise as there are ways to bake a cake. One likely tale is that the head cooks in Assyrian households were allowed to wear high cloth headdresses patterned on the crowns of their royal masters.

This distinction was intended to encourage valuable servants to remain faithful to their masters, who lived in constant fear of being poisoned. The ribs or pleats in the headdress represented the ribs in the king's crown and were stitched into the cloth and stiffened with starch.

Today the chef's hat has one hundred pleats -- said to represent the one hundred ways that a good chef should be able to cook eggs. This legend probably originated in ancient Persia or in Rome, where mater culinarians were presented with bonnet-like caps studded with laurel leaves. Other sources say the story comes from France and is of fairly recent origin.

Yet another version, similar to the Assyrian one, ascribes the pattern of the modern-day toque to the headdress of Greek Orthodox priests. During the decline of the Byzantine Empire at the end of the sixth century, intellectuals and artists sought sanctuary in the monasteries from the invading Northern barbarians. Many of these mend were good cooks and became chefs in the monastery kitchens. Some imperial chefs from royal households may also have fled to the monasteries. As a disguise, these refugees adopted the habits and headgear of their hosts -- but, instead of the traditional black, they chose garments in white.

Sifting fact from fiction seems impossible. Many people believe that today's toque blanche is a more recent result of the gradual evolution of head coverings worn by cooks through the centuries.

Looking through illustrations of past headgear, one sees that the "toque" originally referred to a head covering worn by both men and women. It eventually assumed the shape of the small, round, close-fitting band or "crown" of cloth without a projecting brim but encompassing a gathering of material covering the top of the head. Sometimes of gatherings were pleated. By the end of the sixteenth century, the height, shape and stiffness of the gathered material varied from country to country. It ranged from the flattened beret style of the French to the formally pleated middle height of the Italians to the tall, softly-gathered style favored by the Germans. Illustrations in cookbooks of these periods show male cooks wearing a variety of headgear, including floppy berets, tall toques gathered in to topknots, skull caps and stocking caps resembling pointed nightcaps.

French cooks of the eighteenth century generally wore the "casque a meche" or stocking cap, the colors of which varied according to rank. Mr. Boucher, chef to the French statesman Talleyrand (l754-l838), is credited with introducing white as the standard color when he insisted for sanitary reasons that his cooks wear white caps. During this period, Spanish cooks wore berets of white wool or ticking; Germans wore pointed Napoleonic hats with a decorative tassel; the British wore starched Scotch caps and black skull caps sometimes referred to as librarians' caps. In addition to stocking caps, French cooks, especially pastry cooks, wore a bank of linen or ticking with a central mound of the same fabric pleated on the edge. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was full, heavily starched and held in the middle with a circular whalebone, producing the effect of a halo. Under Napoleon III (1808-1833), the Greek bonnet ornamented with a tassel was in vogue. Bald cooks purportedly wore caps in velour or heavy cloth wile persons with hair wore them in linen or netting.

The famous chef M. Antonin Careme, whose career spanned the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (l784-l833) is known to have worn the flattened, starched toque with a piece of round cardboard tucked inside. His book La Maitre d'Hotel (1822) has a frontis-piece illustration showing a chef in "costume anciene" wearing a stocking cap while a chef in "costume moderne" sports what may be either a whalebone or cardboard-braced toque.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, cooks still wore a variety of caps including the skull cap, beret, and short pleated pastry cook's cap, as well as the taller version reminiscent of the German toque of the fifteenth century.. Probably because of its comfort and imposing appearance the tall, stiffly starched and neatly pleated white hat, favored by the famous Auguste Escoffier (l846-l935), became more and more popular during the early part of the twentieth century. Today the tall "toque blanche" has become the standard headgear of professional cooks.

Whatever its true history, it is worn with pride and maintained with care as a vital part of the uniform or a working chef.

Le chef de cuisine in full working whites evokes an instant sense of recognition, Worldwide, the uniform of white Jacket checkered pants, neckerchief, apron and side towel, topped by the distinctive tall toque blanche, signals the presence of a skilled practitioner of an ancient craft - the culinary arts. The wearer of such a uniform is obviously equipped to prepare and cook the kind of food once demanded by kings and now ordered by every cash-or credit-card carrying citizen.

Today's chef, of course, is much more than a cook. He or she knows and practices modern methods of hygiene and sanitation, possesses managerial and interpersonal skills, is aware of nutritional and foodservice trends in buying, storing and cost control. In many kitchens, a computer now sits alongside the stove - almost as familiar a sight as skillet and saucepan - but, even in the ate of technology chefs still must have the old-fashioned virtues: a capacity for hard work and long hours, plus an unlimited curiosity about food.

The uniform worn by these commanders of the kitchen has evolved over the centuries from a practical need to protect the wearer and for the aesthetic purpose of presenting a clean, wholesome image. At the same time, it confers distinction, establishes status and denotes pride.

At the Culinary Institute, chef-instructors wear white double-breasted jackets with sleeves neatly turned back at the cuff. Red and blue braid stripes at the collar and above the left pocket distinguish instructors from students, who otherwise wear virtually the same uniform. A neckerchief tied cravat-style effects much the kind of finis hing touch that a tie worn with a business suit achieves. Today, it is not so essential as when chefs toiled over open fires in badly ventilated kitchens; then the scarf served to catch and absorb facial perspiration. Different colors of neckerchiefs mean different things at the Institute. Chef-instructors sport a white one;' students generally wear yellow neckerchiefs, with the exception of members of the Service Club who wear distinctive blue ones.

In the United States, a chef's trousers are patterned with a small black and white checkered design while in European countries the checks are generally blue and white. Whether black and white or blue and white, the material must be washable and strong enough to stand up to frequent laundering.

The white apron worn folded and tied at the waist takes spills, splashes and other abuses. It should be replaced daily - sooner if really dirty. The side towel worn tucked into the apron strings performs many useful functions, but mopping floors or shining shoes is certainly not among them.

In an article some years ago in Taste Magazine, Barbara Feret Schuman described the origin of the hat worn by today's chefs as follows: The head cooks of ancient Assyrian households were permitted to wear a tall cloth headdress patterned after the crowns of their royal masters. This distinction was intended to encourage these important household servants to remain faithful to their masters, who were ever fearful of poisoning.

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