When I get to work, one of the first things I do is change into my white double-breasted chef’s jacket and don an apron to begin my prep work for the day. (I provide my own chef’s pants and shoes – and there are both made specifically for the professional kitchen.) Chef does not require we put on our uniforms during prep, but I like dressing for the occasion because it helps me step into my role and it keeps me from sweating through the clothes I’m going to wear home at the end of the shift.
Uniforms become standard wear for a reason – at least for the most part – and kitchen clothing is no different. Here is a brief history of chef wear:
Chefs, for the most part, wear their uniforms almost every day of their working lives, replete with toque, checked pants and double-breasted jacket. Though these uniforms are ubiquitous in the foodservice industry worldwide, they are often taken for granted and worn without much thought. However, many may find that the origin and reasons behind traditional chef’s attire are as interesting as it looks.
Much of the chef’s uniform has developed out of necessity. The jacket, for example, is double-breasted so it can easily be reversed to hide stains that may accumulate throughout the day; the double layer of cotton is also designed to insulate our bodies against the intense heat of the stove or an accidental splattering of hot liquid. Even the knotted cloth buttons were fashioned for a reason-cloth will withstand the frequent washings and abuse buttons often take from contact with pots, pans and other heavy equipment. Though executive chefs often wear black pants, working chefs and cooks usually don pants with black-and-white checks-the dizzying pattern of hound’s tooth camouflages minor spills and soilings. Today neckerchiefs are primarily worn for aesthetic purposes, to give our uniforms a more finished look, but originally cotton cloths were draped around ones neck to soak body sweat while working in the inferno-like kitchens of yesteryear.
Hats have fallen out of fashion in many kitchens. I wear a baseball cap backwards (to keep the bill out of the way) because I sweat profusely, but I’m the only one in our kitchen with headgear. When I ran the function kitchen at the Inn, if I were staffing a carving station for a wedding, I work a toque in public to play the part. I have a great kind of floppy one that makes me look a lot like the bear in the picture. At one wedding, an older woman asked me, “Do people ever just want to come up and take your picture and give you a hug?”
Sara Miles adds another layer to the uniform:
I learned what it felt like to become invisible: When I pulled on my slightly starch-stiff whites, the uniform changed me from an individual, with my own tedious history, to a ritual figure, one of millions of restaurant workers, with a time-honored and predictable role. (23)
The paradox of personhood I learn over and over again, dressed alike and standing side by side with my kitchen mates, is I am more true to myself as an “invisible” team member than I am if I were staking claim to the part of each dish I did myself. I am more true to the calling of both my humanity and my vocation when I take my place in the lineage of history, both cultural and culinary, in the same way I become one in the great cloud of witnesses when I take the bread and wine at the Communion table. True humanity is found in integration rather than individualism, in community much more than anyone’s claim to fame. If I’m at my best, I’m dressing to disappear. What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, yes:
Lose your life to find it.