It is 4:30pm at KOL and the team is getting ready for service. The chefs are wiping down stations, getting their mise sorted, and mentally preparing for the wave of customers that are soon to waltz their way into the restaurant. You’ve got a picture of those chefs in your head, right? Well, what are they wearing? White jackets? A big toque? Are they holding a pan? A really big knife? Are their arms covered in tattoos and burn scars?
For most people out there, the mental image they have of a chef is inseparable from the outfit they’re best known for: chef whites. Think of all the iconic black and white images of Marco Pierre White in White Heat or Gordon Ramsay with his arms crossed giving a lascivious look into the camera on every episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Chef whites have been around since the mid-19th century. The iconic French chef Marie-Antoine Carême is widely credited with having developed that all-white chef's uniform. The colour was initially used to signify cleanliness – something that was a bit of a hot button issue in Paris around the time. Not only did they show the customers that the food was being prepared in a sanitary manner but spotless chef whites were also an indicator to everyone within the kitchen who the most skilled chefs were. No one wants to be the commis who finishes every shift with sauce stains up their arms, so having those whites acted as an extra motivator to work proficiently and cleanly.
Auguste Escoffier, the creator of the Brigade de Cuisine kitchen structure, was the first person to properly standardize the uniform at his London restaurants. Since then, they’ve been an integral part of the kitchen and a marker of skill and rank worn by all cooks doing their military service to steak and chips. Not all chefs today, however, are forced to wear the starched uniforms that Escoffier and Carême would have approved of. Some high-end restaurants have even done away with them altogether.
That brings me back to KOL – a Michelin-starred restaurant in Marylebone where the chefs don’t wear whites. “Our chefs wear t-shirts from a brand called Son of a Tailor. They are designed in Copenhagen and custom made for us in Portugal,” says KOL’s chef-owner Santiago Lastra, “it’s a high-quality t-shirt made of cotton and is very light and breathable. They are clay coloured to represent the clay of Mexico and the bricks of England.”