The wearing of the whites

Who gets to rock the color white after Labor Day and all year ’round? Millions of us chefs and cooks all over the world. Our uniforms are called “chef’s whites.” Although the entire ensemble isn’t always white, the jacket, apron and toque (hat) usually are. For verbal shorthand, we just say “whites,” as in “Good grief, I gotta do a load of whites tonight or I’ll have to go to work naked tomorrow.”

Would you wear a white dress shirt to cook dinner in? Not likely. But that’s sort of the point. The tradition of the white coat goes back to the 19th century, when French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (sigh — my hero) created the uniform and chose white to signify cleanliness — which was, of course, in short supply in those days. The concept was that if you could keep your white coat clean, then you were probably meticulous about the cleanliness of the kitchen in general. Of course, there’s a built-in stealth feature: the double-breast. This means that if I splash marinara all over the front of me, and then get called out into the dining room, I can unbutton my jacket and switch it over to the other side before greeting patrons.

The apron is most often also white, and should be long. This is designed to protect us from the heat of the range ovens and any boiling hot liquid that might spill onto our thighs or — ahem — baby-making anatomical areas. (Footnote: Pastry chefs sometimes wear black jackets and/or aprons, because it’s a challenge to keep their uniforms free of flour and sugar.)

The chef’s hat has a bit of a muddled history. By some accounts, it was designed to keep the grease that condensed on the ceiling of a hot kitchen from dripping directly onto a cook’s head. Other historians say the toque was designed to mimic a crown, as good chefs were often given high standing in royal courts. Traditional pleated chefs’ toques have 100 starched pleats, which are meant to signify how many different ways any competent chef should be able to cook the humble egg.

I find that a chef’s jacket worn in public is an invitation to people of all stripes to pick one’s brain. I’m on the way home, I stop at the grocery. I see that look in your eye. You want to ask me something. Personally, I embrace this aspect of being a chef.

Sometimes, it’s short and sweet. Recently, a lady pointed at me at the meat counter and said, “Pork chops. Marinade. Ginger?”

I replied: “If you’re going Asian, then … do you have any sesame oil? Don’t buy any, but …”

“I have some,” she said.

“Well, then — just a few drops of the sesame oil, some rice wine vinegar, some vegetable oil, shallots, brown sugar, soy sauce, cilantro — and don’t forget the garlic!”

She smiled, said briefly: “Oh, yeah, garlic. Got it, thanks.”

Another week, a 20-something lady shyly touched my arm in the frozen foods aisle. Her husband, obviously embarrassed, hung back a dozen feet.

“I found out I have diabetes. I don’t know what to buy,” she fretted. “I know I need to eat better, but I don’t know how.” I looked at what was in her cart. I glanced at her rambunctious kids.

“Well, I know your kids probably like this stuff,” I said, gesturing to her cart. “But you can’t eat it on a regular basis. Not if you want to be around when they graduate high school.” I picked an item at random from her cart and showed her the nutritional values on the label.

“I never knew what that stuff meant,” she said quietly. I spent a quick 10 minutes trying to educate her about carbs and sugar gram levels. I took her up to the checkout counter and put a Cooking for Diabetics magazine in her hands. “Read this, please, cover to cover,” I said. I left the store feeling worried for her, but glad we ran into each other.

Wearing whites confers great responsibility — to be sanitary, skilled, helpful and wise. I cherish the uniform we sport, and have done so every single day of my professional life.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.