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The origin of the original chef hat is shrouded in mystery, as no one knows precisely when these hats first appeared in royal kitchens. Probably the most recognizable chef hat is known as the toque, or "toque blanche" in French. While no one seems to know exactly when this hat was originally developed, this tall, stiff brimless hat was incorporated as an official chef uniform in the 19th century France by a popular and skilled cook. The toque is worn today by chefs around the world, but other chef hats have since appeared, such as the flared toque hat, the beanie, the beret, the skull cap, the plastic bonnet and the baseball cap. No matter the type of hat, all chef hats have the same purpose: to keep hair and sweat out of the food and the chef supplies.
A chef is generally defined as a professional who cooks food in a kitchen, but more specifically the chef is a skilled professional cook who is trained and experienced in the culinary arts. A true chef has one hat, the toque. The toque may be pleated or may have a flared top, but this special type of headgear sets the chef apart, signifying his or her professional standing in the kitchen amongst the other workers. A chef skillfully trained in the culinary arts and working in a professional environment does not wear a beanie or a baseball cap as part of his or her uniform.
The toque is approximately 9 inches (228 mm) to 12 inches (305 mm) high and is traditionally white. Some toque chef hats are pleated. Pleats display the skill of the chef, as the more pleats on the hat, the more experience and seniority the chef has in the kitchen. A hat with 100 pleats shows exceptional skill, as tradition states that 100 pleats is the reward for the chef's mastery of 100 different methods to cook an egg. In some areas, a taller hat instead of the number of pleats, signifies culinary superiority.
In a more informal setting, the main cook may be referred as the chef, even though this person has not been trained and certified as an educated, professional chef. A short order cook may wear a beanie or a plastic bonnet secured to his or her head with an elastic band. Such a uniform may be considered a chef hat in today's more casual kitchen settings. Some beanies sport a brim, called a casquette.
Other types of informal chef hats include the beret, a popular headpiece worn by pizza-making Italians. Skull caps and garrison caps, popular after the world wars, are other types unofficial chef hats, although these hats are usually seen in military or casual diner settings. The baseball cap has become a popular hat for cooks. Modern headgear may include the emblem or logo of an affiliate or supplier, much like polo shirts and denim jeans labels boast of their designers.
We went on a culinary tour in France a few years ago and were told that the inventor of the toque (whose name slips my mind) was also the chef who came up with the idea of serving meals in order from appetizer to dessert, rather than just putting everything out at once.
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