Are Chef Whites Over?

As more restaurants move towards a more casual chef’s uniform, are the days of starched chef whites numbered?
Are the days of chef whites numbered?

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.”

The KOL team in their kitchen get-up. Photograph: Eleonora Boscarelli.

“Working in these t-shirts is extremely comfortable and that was very important to us when thinking about our uniform for KOL. Also, the colour of the t-shirt and the apron really showcase the cultural influences and personality of KOL much better than chef whites would.”

A uniform isn’t just a way to make sure that every person in the kitchen feels like they’re playing on the same team – the same way football jerseys instill a passion and loyalty in players, some of whom would even go as far as to kiss the badge after a goal – it’s also a way for the restaurant to represent its ethos to the diners in the restaurant. When you walk into a restaurant and see that the staff are wearing starched whites, you immediately expect to get a certain dining experience as a result. The same thing would happen if you saw the restaurant was full of waiters in suits and that every table was draped in an immaculately white tablecloth. If you see that the cooks are all wearing civvies that they’re comfortable in, though, you’re immediately a bit more relaxed. A chef’s uniform isn’t just a way to level the playing field in the kitchen but a way for a restaurant to set the tone for the meal you’re about to eat.

“I've always had chef whites,” says Paul Hood, the chef patron of Social Eating House in Soho, “it keeps the team together really when everyone's in the same uniform. It's kind of like in a school, isn't it? It makes it feel a lot more even and it makes you feel a bit sharper, too.”


While the T-shirts they wear at KOL are a far cry from polyester chef’s jackets, Santiago also believes in the power of a uniform. “It’s nice not having to worry about what you’re going to wear to work,” he admits, “and it also ensures that everyone looks neat and professional. It really brings the team together as a unit when you’re all dressed the same.”

In high-end restaurants like The River Cafe, the chef’s uniforms are as much a part of the restaurant experience as everything else. The River Cafe has an open kitchen and, as a result, what the chefs are wearing is very much part of the overall package they’re selling. The grand open dining room is part of the restaurant’s allure and seeing the chefs rolling trofie and chopping carrots is as much a part of the mise en scene and the diner’s overall experience as the food itself. Well, that and the draw of eating dinner while rubbing elbows with celebrities like Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. The chef whites of the River Cafe staff are always bright white and echo the simple refinement of the restaurant and its cooking.

“In most classic restaurants, you'll see people wearing whites and having more of a uniform,” agrees Paul, “apart from outliers like Tom Kerridge’s The Hand and Flowers, it seems to be more of the modern and casual restaurants that seem to be going down the T-shirts or slightly different coloured uniforms.” Although KOL has a Michelin star to its name, there’s no denying it offers a more casual dining experience than you’d get from a French restaurant specialising in haute cuisine. And that’s part of its appeal. Santiago has created a rarefied thing: a restaurant in Marylebone where you can eat extremely confident cooking that uses the very best ingredients imaginable without having to worry about whether or not your Ted Baker button-up is high-end enough.

Whether you like it or not, fine dining is becoming incredibly more casual and dress codes – both in the kitchen and in the dining room – are becoming a thing of the past. It’s less about what you’re wearing and the weight of your cutlery and more about the food itself. Comfort has become a priority over tradition for tradition’s sake. And I think that’s a good thing, don’t you?

Related Content

Christmas Feasting Spread
How To Make The Perfect Christmas Feast
We’re showing you how to host a proper festive dinner party with Stella Artois Unfiltered. Perfect if you’re stuck for Christmas dinner party ideas.
How To Caramelise Onions
How To Make Caramelised Onions
Learn how to caramelise onions with ease thanks to this handy how-to guide. Your shortcut to a perfectly caramelised onion awaits with these quick tips on how to make an easy caramelised onion recipe.
How To Make Peking Duck
How To Make Peking Duck
Want some secrets on how to make Peking duck? Also want to know where to find the best Peking duck in London? We've killed two birds (or ducks) with one stone right here.
Christmas Gift Guide For Food Lovers Recipe
Christmas Gift Guide For Food Lovers
From chef’s knives to aprons and pepper jelly, these are the best Christmas gifts for the food lovers in your life.
How Long To Boil An Egg
How Long To Boil An Egg
Let's cut to the chase: you want to learn how long to hard boil an egg and how long to soft boil an egg, right? This article will tell you how to do just that.
Best Instagram Food Accounts
39 Instagram Food Accounts You Need To Follow
From Eric Tries It to Carolina Gelen, these are all the tastiest food accounts on Instagram you should be following. Along with us, of course.