Hot couture

01 January 2000
Hot couture

If Gary Rhodes had been around in 1852 he might have been described as "sporting a rich crimson velvet waistcoat, a variegated blue satin stock and a white hat worn on one side". For this was Thackeray's description of a fashionable chef at that time and Rhodes, in his famous checked trousers, is surely the epitome of a fashionable chef.

In fact, many chefs today are discarding their traditional whites in favour of trendy new designs with jazzy patterns and bright colours. But the revolution has been a long time coming - for more than 100 years the chef's uniform has remained virtually unchanged.

Since about 1870 chefs' clothing had consisted of a white, double-breasted jacket, tall white hat, blue-checked trousers, neck tie and clogs. The tendency to wear white was already established in the 15th century, as illustrations of the cook wearing a long white apron in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales show. It has been suggested that this is because cooks, together with millers and bakers, were liable to become covered with flour, although the association of white with cleanliness and the fact that white fabrics are generally less expensive is plausible.

The idea of the apron to contend with the splashing of hot liquids seems to have originated in the Middle Ages. For the same reason, long white over-sleeves appeared in the 17th century as an alternative to rolled up shirt-sleeves.

Headgear, however, does not seem to have been de rigueur for chefs until the 18th century, when many cooks took to wearing a round skull-cap of velvet or white linen known as a "nightcap".

As for the origins of the toque - there appear to be two versions. One tale dates from the early part of the 18th century in Vienna, where Antoine Carâme slipped cardboard into his cap to give it a smarter appearance - thus giving birth to the toque.

An alternative myth dates the toque's advent back to 16th-century Greece when chefs were classed as artisans. They formed groups among themselves and invited townsfolk to join them in their meeting places to enjoy fine food and wine.

Disguised as priests

The Greek king, concerned that too much money was being spent in these early restaurants and cafés and too little paid in taxes, banished the chefs, who then sought refuge with Greek Orthodox priests. As a disguise they grew beards and wore tall hats similar to the ones worn by priests. However, so as not to be confused with their religious protectors, the chefs' hats were white.

Whatever the truth about the toque's origins, the hat has been worn since the 19th century by chefs on the Continent, and later in London, although the shape varied. Some chefs wore a round, flat-topped tam-o'-shanter, while others preferred a "pork pie" skull-cap with a tassel. Alexis Soyer, head chef of London's Reform Club in 1863, was renowned for wearing a beret made of black velvet.

It was not until the early 20th century, though, that the white tam-o'-shanter and pork pie-style hats became gathered at the crown and were combined to form a "cauliflower" shape. The new design became very popular and from 1914 it became the traditional headwear for chefs.

In the meantime, the neck tie had appeared on the scene (originally longer than its present form) as a useful tool for wiping the brow and neck in the hot conditions of the kitchen. With the introduction of ventilation and air conditioning its practicality has diminished slightly in recent years and it is now retained by some chefs as a decorative and traditional part of their uniform only. However, Mark Gregory, head chef at the soon-to-be-opened T'Su Japanese-style restaurant in London's Walton Street, confesses: "I feel naked without it."

It is unclear when wooden clogs became a popular form of footwear for chefs, but their adoption seems to have been for practical rather than fashion purposes. As chefs' feet take so much punishment standing for hours on hard surfaces, it makes sense to wear shoes that follow the natural shape of the foot and provide the correct support.

In fact, the traditional wooden sole with cupped heel and arch support is thought to help prevent complaints associated with standing for long periods, such as back pain. Clogs also allow quick release of the foot in the event of a spillage or other accidents.

Gregory is the man behind Le Chef workwear and is largely responsible for the revolution in chefs' clothing. His comfortable, multi-fit, trendy designs have provided alternatives for chefs who want something other than traditional whites - two of his innovations being the introduction of trousers with an elasticated waist and drawstrings, and a pull-over tunic-style jacket with no temperamental buttons.

However, his designs have not always been well-received. "At first I was ridiculed," he recalls, "but those people aren't laughing now." Indeed, his designs are worn by many top chefs, including Antony Worrall Thompson and Christian Delteil. And the checks which have become Rhodes's trademark can also be attributed to Gregory.

Gregory's plans for the future include Japanese wrap-over-style jackets and, for the environmentally-aware chef, uniforms made of unbleached cotton.

Demand for new styles

The chefs' wear supplier and manufacturer of Gregory's Le Chef designs, Dennys, also realised there was a demand for something different. Director Nick Jubert says: "We recognised in New Zealand, Australia and America something was happening in chefs' wear which was very good and which we believed everyone would want. So we started a new range to mirror that." Dennys has been dressing chefs for 140 years, originally from its premises in Old Compton Street in London's Soho and more recently from new, larger premises at 55a Dean Street, a move of just 50 yards across the road and one which pays a fitting tribute to a new era of chefs' clothing.

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