Why Chefs Wear White (and Sometimes Color Too)

1 Historic Chef

By Ana Kinkaid

Today’s diners accept a chef’s gleaming white jacket as the standard attire of a culinary professional, prompted in part by the early television appearances of Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck. Yet the real story of why chefs wear white began much earlier than today’s endless cooking shows.

Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, cooking was a largely undefined profession in which kitchen staff wore street clothes, or in the better households, an assortment of grey clothing often covered with stains.

Marie-Antonin Careme

Marie-Antonin Carême

That is until Marie-Antonin Carême entered culinary history. At this time, Paris was famed for its elaborate pastries and the most innovative creator of these popular towering sugar edifices, known as pièce montées, was Carême.

Such creations were expensive and available only in wealthy households or in the windows of exclusive pastry shops. When the blood bath released by the French Revolution broke loose, it was not a safe time to be found working in an elite estate kitchen or serving the rich.

Conscious of this danger, Carême changed from creating sugar towers to crafting useful sauces. Yet as he changed career focus, he brought with him the single breasted white jacket he wore as a Parisian pastry chef.

Once the chaos of the French Revolution subsided, Napoleon emerged as the supreme leader. He was most certainly a military genius, but he was not a gourmet. In fact, he could have cared less what he ate as long as it was hot and ready.

Napoleon was aware, however, that dining facilitates dialogue and dialogue strengthens relationships. He gave his minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord a grand estate and told him to create a diplomatic gathering place complete with a stunning banquet hall.

The chef of the estate was of course Carême, in his preferred white jacket. And although both he and Talleyrand survived the fall of Napoleon, the use of a white jacket fell out of use as noble households re-established themselves and kitchen staff returned to wearing gray livery.

Auguste Escoffier

Auguste Escoffier

It was Auguste Escoffier a half century later who revived the use of Carême’s beloved white jacket. Just as Escoffier began his kitchen apprenticeship in 1865 at the age of 19, he was drafted into military service. What he observed in the army affected his entire career and the countless chefs he influenced.

From the military he adopted rank and order and brought that concept to the kitchen. Each person had a specific task and title. With each position came a uniform denoting the status of the person. A towering white toque replaced the military helmet with its tall plumes and brass insignias. Traditionally, an executive chef’s toque is 12-inches tall, making the chef recognizable across the expanse of the kitchen floor, like a general on a battlefield.

Escoffier knew that diners needed to be assured that their food was prepared in a pristine environment and safe to eat. What better way to do that then to revive Carême’s snow white jacket, but with two major adjustments and one addition.

First he replaced the cheap clipping buttons with cloth French knot buttons or buttons drilled from sturdy oyster shells. This made the jacket quicker to remove, safer and more elegant in appearance.

Next he redesigned the jacket from single breasted to double breasted. This adjustment enabled the busy chef, often with a stained jacket front, to quickly switch the soiled side to an alternate clean side when meeting a guest.

Additionally, Escoffier required a looser fitting trousers, similar to the fuller military cut, to enable better ease of movement. He also promoted the selection of a black and white houndstooth fabric pattern for the new pants style. Like camouflage, it hid not the solider, but the stains.

At this point it might seem there is no tradition that supports a chef wearing color, yet there is. Between the influential years of Carême and Escoffier, another legendary chef made a name for himself and his outfits. He is also the subject of a play today: Alexis Soyer.

9 Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer

Like Carême, he rose from the kitchen ranks and, like Escoffier, became world famous. As a young chef, he saved his life and those of his fellow cooks when an angry mob, unhappy with the heavy handed rule of the new French king, broke into the estate kitchen where he worked.

Soyer saved the day by jumping onto a nearby kitchen table and loudly singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, thereby turning the angry mob into a cheering crowd. Soyer never forgot the moment and the power of appearance to influence others. Later, as chef of London’s renowned Reform Club, he added flair and color to traditional chef’s attire, starting with his own professional wardrobe. He wore a velvet beret, lace and a bright silk jacket cut on the bias when he cooked.

His decision to wear vivid colors and dress in elegant fabrics was not one of vanity but of professionalism. In an era when men of the upper class wore black, brown and blue, he wanted to stand out and let the world know chefs were skilled individuals to be noticed and appreciated, not dismissed as just another nameless servant.

He followed through on his belief that chefs were people of substance by actively engaging in relief efforts during the Great Irish Potato Famine and with Florence Nightingale during the bloody Crimea War.

The final touch of color (or absence of it altogether) began about 15 years ago when transparency and the sense of dining as an experience prompted the open kitchen concept. With diners now able to see food preparation, black jackets were adopted to hide food stains.

Today, chefs have many choices both in career and attire–traditional, modern and innovative. Yet there is a common core that links them all together. Chefs are part of a community that isn’t merely regional, national or even international. It is a universal fellowship of pride and integrity that begins each day with a simple professional jacket and a commitment to honoring the past while creating the future.

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ACF Culinary Team USA and Youth Team USA at the 2016 culinary Olympics.

Kinkaid, Ana
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

Meet the Oyster King of New York City

By Ana Kinkaid

The enduring values of our country can be found in the history of American cuisine. No story better demonstrates that fact than the life of Thomas Downing, New York’s legendary Oyster King.

Born in 1791 to freed blacks in Virginia, he grew up near the Methodist meeting house where his parents worked as caretakers. Yet his heart belonged not to the church steeple but to the nearby seashore. There from an early age he raked oysters and dug for clams among the chattering seagulls.

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As a young man he fought bravely against the invading British in the War of 1812 before settling in Philadelphia, where he met his wife. In 1819 he and his young bride moved to New York City and purchased a small oyster cart on Staten Island.

New York was an ideal location for his new business venture. At the time, the large majority of men working as registered oystermen were freed blacks. Because racial discrimination seemed to matter less on the nearby stormy waterways, of the 27 oystermen listed in the New York City Labor Directory, at least 16 were freed black Americans.

4 Oyster Cart

The same was true of the City’s many oyster bars. They too were largely owned and operated by freed blacks, who in 1821 were granted with additional restrictions the right to vote and own businesses, a decision sadly reversed in 1857 by the repressive Dred Scott Decision.

5 Oyster Harvesting.jpeg

Downing worked hard, very hard. He first bought a boat and would row out in the dead of night to bargain with the returning watermen in order to buy their best oysters before they could be auctioned off to the other oystermen waiting on the City’s docks.

He combined his “sea bought” oysters with premium oysters harvested from the rich shellfish flats on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to establish a reputation among buyers as a man who provided only “superior oysters”.

Soon his rolling cart business expanded to a full oyster house and then a catering service. To offer both services simultaneously was unique for the time.

His oyster house, strategically located on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, close to the City’s important center of commerce, which included the banks, the Customs House, the Merchants’ Exchange and department stores, was actually a full restaurant, one any chef today could be proud of.

7 Downing Newspaper Ad.jpeg

Its lush décor was opulent and filled with soft Persian carpets, rich damask curtains, gold-leaf carvings, sparkling chandeliers and mirrored hallways. As a result, his was the only oyster house that attracted the powerful and elite of New York’s white society. Tables were regularly filled by the City’s leading politicians, rich businessmen, intellectuals and foreign dignitaries, as well as women in the company of their husbands or suitable chaperons.

Downing’s catering services were equally sought after. Indeed, when the famed English writer Charles Dickens came to New York in 1842, Downing was chosen to cater the grand honorary “Boz Ball” with a guest list boasting of 3,000 guests!

If one was ever to doubt the professionalism of the business he built, consider the list of the items he provided to guests on that memorable night:

50,000 oysters

10,000 sandwiches

40 hams

76 tongues

50 rounds of beef

50 jellied turkeys

50 pairs of chicken

25 ducks

2,000 mutton chops

Yet Downing’s enduring fame does not rest just on his skills as a business man. Instead of hoarding his wealth, he chose to share and to support the urgent social problems of his day including voting rights for all, equal access to education and complete rights for women.

But he did far more than just support these causes financially. For while New York’s elite dined upstairs, he welcomed fleeing slaves into his restaurant’s basement, which was a secret stop on the Underground Railroad. Once rested and fed, he helped hundreds to reach Canada where they would be free from the fear of recapture.

He also employed black musicians, laying the groundwork for the great jazz clubs to come later in Harlem that would electrify the music world. As his catering business flourished he actively worked to see that equal educational opportunities were available to all regardless of race or national origin. As a self-made man, he understood the vital value of education in order to achieve success.

His skill in business and his commitment to community were so esteemed that when he died in 1866 the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed so that they and the other leading members of business, religious and social communities could attend his funeral.

11 Downing Funeral

Truly, Downing was more than just someone who sold shellfish. He was, instead, an outstanding example of what is best in the hospitality industry. He chose to take oysters and clams and used them to change the world into a better, more just environment for others.

Kinkaid, Ana
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.