Why do chefs wear those big puffy hats? Wouldn't a hair net do better if they're trying to keep hair out of the food?
-- LN, Mission Hills
If form follows function, the traditional chef's hat (called a toque) certainly is a mystery. Hard enough to whip up a successful beef Wellington without balancing a 12-inch, starched, cotton tube on your head. Peek into virtually any restaurant kitchen these days and you'll probably see the workers wearing hair nets or small white paper hats or even baseball caps. The toque is, for the most part, relegated to public appearances, a professional symbol, not a practical piece of headgear.
Today's restaurant kitchen reflects the innovations of France's chef de chefs, Auguste Escoffier. He hooked up with the equally brilliant hotelier Cesar Ritz and changed the dining out experience for all time. Among other things, Escoffier revamped the whole manner of food presentation, from the so-called English service to Russian service. In the English style, all the dishes for the meal are placed on the table at one time (as many as 30 or so for a big fancy meal in those days, the late 1800s). Russian service presents each course separately, served either from a sideboard or directly from the kitchen. Seven or eight courses was the norm back then, all designed and choreographed for maximum drama by the chef.
Behind the scenes too Escoffier exercised his dictatorial powers, turning the restaurant kitchen from bedlam into military order. He devised the now-standard system of an executive chef directing a platoon of under-chefs, each with his own expertise.
In the typical European restaurant kitchen of the 1800s, the cooks wore short white stocking caps or slightly oversized berets. To distinguish the new post of kitchen dictator, Escoffier himself wore a pneumatic version of the traditional cap, with a stiff band several inches high and a soft crown poofed like a souffl�. In fact, the new post of kitchen czar was referred to as the gros bonnet, the big hat. The diminutive escoffier had to wear platform shoes when working in the kitchen, so perhaps the big hat idea was another way of literally increasing his stature.