Even though numerous legends date the toque back to ancient times, this favourite accessory of top chefs across the globe was not always the norm. The oldest of these legends originates in the 7th century BCE. The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal feared he might be poisoned, so he requested his chefs wear a hat similar to that of the royal family, to be more easily recognised in the palace and show their allegiance to the sovereign.
Another myth regarding the origin of the chef’s hat claims that, to mark the beginning of festivities during Greek and Roman Antiquity, the organisers of feasts equipped their chefs with hats adorned with laurel leaves. According to a third legend, the toque is a copy of the hat worn by Greek Orthodox priests. In the Byzantine Empire, during a period of political unrest in the 6th century, many chefs were said to have sought refuge in monasteries and adopted the monks’ clothing, including their typical cylindrical black hats (‘kamilavkion’)1.
In his book The Curious Cook, the American author Harold McGee explains that, “The origin of the chef’s hat is quite obscure. Other research on the subject has clearly shown that – regardless of what happened in the monasteries in Greece –, the contemporary chef’s hat was really only adopted around 1900.”
A hat for sweltering kitchens
In their Dictionnaire du gastronome, Jean Vitaux and Benoît France describe the use of a rimless and cylindrical Spanish toca in the 15th century. The two French gastronomy enthusiasts then note that, at the end of the Renaissance, European chefs, caterers and roast cooks wore hats similar to nightcaps2.
Jérémie Brucker, a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Angers in France, and author of a thesis on the history of professional clothing, including chefs’ garments, explains that a chef’s hat was chiefly functional and worn for hygienic purposes. “A chef’s hat was often made of black cotton, and intended to soak up sweat on the brows of those working in sweltering conditions, blackened by the embers of the fireplaces. This headgear also served to prevent hair from falling into food and to protect the wearer from splatters.”
Invented in Vienna
We owe the invention of the contemporary white toque to the French ‘king of chefs and chef of kings’, Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). This master chef, who officiated for Talleyrand, as well as for Tsar Alexander I, first wore it in 18213. At that time, he was working for Lord Steward, the British ambassador to Vienna. As Jérémie Brucker explains, “Impressed by the military uniforms on show at the 1814 Congress of Vienna4, he invented this immaculately white, flat-topped hat, to reflect the purity and rigour to be found both on the plate and in the chef’s appearance.”
Marie-Antoine Carême gave the hat an aesthetic element, to symbolise the prestige of the high-quality cuisine served in Europe’s finest houses. “In the 19th century, it was firmly believed that food should further diplomatic relations,” confirms Jérémie Brucker. Both as a chef and through his books5, Marie-Antoine Carême contributed more widely to the invention of gastronomy and presentation as an art form that spread across the whole of Europe.